All She Wrote

Eliminating unintentional gender bias in our composer selection process.

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California Symphony Young American Composer-in-Residence Program Alumni, clockwise from top left: Dan Visconti, D.J. Sparr, Mason Bates, Kevin Beavers, Kamran Ince, Christopher Theofanidis, Kevin Puts, Pierre Jalbert

“It’s not easy,” wrote recently about women who compose classical music (in this case, opera) for a living. And they were right. For the first time since 1903, the Metropolitan Opera, the United States’ and arguably the world’s greatest opera company, is performing an opera composed by a woman. Yet the Met’s choice to program a work written by a woman for the first time in more than 100 years is only one example of the glaring gender gap in this art form. Another example comes from the personal story of female composer Lauren Redhead, who writes about a music composition competition where very few women would even meet the eligibility criteria, let alone apply. And then there’s our own story. Yes, the California Symphony may be guilty as charged, albeit unintentionally (as most gender bias is), as in our composer-in-residence program history — a nationally recognized and praised program celebrating its 25th year — we have never selected a female composer.

Addressing the Problem

We decided to face the music (pun very much intended) and address this issue head-on in our selection process this year. The good news is that classical music has found a very effective solution for an equitable selection process elsewhere that we could look to for inspiration: orchestra auditions. In 1952 the Boston Symphony first experimented with blind auditions, where candidates would perform for the audition panel behind a screen that masked their identity, which would allow for the panel to judge the musicians solely on what they heard, i.e. the merits of their playing. The trouble was that their initial audition results still skewed male. Then they asked candidates to remove their shoes, and that made all the difference. Why? Because the sound of the women’s heeled shoes as they walked on stage unknowingly influenced the panelists. This theory of unintentional gender bias affecting audition results was scientifically tested and famously published in a 2000 study of leading symphony orchestras (Goldin & Rouse, ). In fact, having candidates audition behind a screen increased — by 50 percent — the probability that a woman would be advanced through certain preliminary audition rounds, and increased by several-fold the likelihood that a woman would be selected for the final audition round. The blind audition process is now not only standard practice among professional orchestras, but also praised among organizational and social psychologists across all industries (nonprofit and for profit) for being one the most equitable hiring practices in this country in terms of its effects on promoting gender equality. Before blind auditions were introduced, male orchestra members outnumbered female musicians almost 2-to-1. Today, as of 2013, the breakdown of male to female orchestra musicians in professional orchestras is 54% to 46%, almost reaching parity (source: League of American Orchestras). Emulating this model for our composer-in-residence selection process seemed like an obvious and necessary choice.

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“The orchestra audition process is now praised among organizational and social psychologists across all industries (nonprofit and for profit) for being one the most equitable hiring practices in this country in terms of its effects on promoting gender equality.”

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We decided to revise our composer-in-residence application, directing candidates to submit all their application materials with any and all identifying information redacted. Résumés, musical scores, and recordings were submitted completely stripped of names, and because the application was completely electronic, all open-ended responses were typed, eliminating any gender-suggesting handwriting. Only the staff member administering the application process has access to the candidate names in connection to their application materials.

Lastly, in addition to creating a more equitable process, we also wanted to increase the number of female applicants in the total candidate pool. We chose to invest some of our program advertising budget into a specific recruitment campaign targeting female composers in additional to our regular marketing/recruitment efforts for this program.

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Two Facebook ads ran promoting the application period for California Symphony’s Composer-in-Residence Program. On the left, specifically targeting female composers; on the right, targeting all composers.

The Results

These efforts resulted in quadrupling the number of female applicants, and nearly 20% of the total applicant pool were women compared to less than 10% two selection periods ago. Our review process is currently underway, and once completed, we will take a closer look at percentages of women who advanced to each round. While we know this process certainly doesn’t guarantee that a female will be selected — that would be the wrong outcome — we do believe we have taken steps to ensure a fair and equitable selection procedure, and we know the final composer will be chosen by the review panel based on the qualities of their work alone. This is a huge improvement in a field very heavily dominated by men, and we haven’t heard of any other orchestra selecting a composer to work with in this way. That’s all she wrote…at least for now.

Update: With every round of review in this new, anonymous format, we saw that 20% of applicants that were advanced were female, meaning the percentage of women who applied were consistently moving through every round, suggesting the fair process worked. In the end, Katherine Balch was selected, and she has been crushing it, just like every composer in the program before her.

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Working to change the narrative for symphony orchestras.

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