Orchestra CEOs: The Smaller the Budget, the More Likely Female

The Largest Orchestras are Run by 67% Men

Aubrey Bergauer
14 min readMar 15, 2021
Data crowdsourced for U.S. orchestras summer 2020; budget size breakdown provided by League of American Orchestras. (Note: transgender was not a category at the exclusion of male/female, but an option to additionally self-identify if desired. Full methodology below.)

In honor of Women’s History Month, I’m sharing data I’ve been sitting on for a while. It’s not particularly surprising; it more confirms what some people already intuitively thought was true, which is that for orchestras, the larger the budget, the greater the gender disparity among chief executives. Put differently, smaller budget orchestras are more likely led by women and larger budgets more by men.

All of this came up last summer after a nice industry conference session on gender equity in the field when a few attendees took to Twitter asking for concrete data on gender breakdown among U.S. orchestra CEOs. It didn’t exist, at least not publicly that we could find, so I offered to start a Google doc to crowdsource it and then compile the results.

And then I sat on it… part out of being busy, part out of wishing this data was already readily available and didn’t have to be crowdsourced, part out of fearing some sort of retribution, and part out of wanting more (ethnicity tracking, senior staff breakdowns, musician gender and racial analysis by budget size). But as I say often to the teams I work with, sometimes the only data is the data we have, and that’s going to have to be a start.

So in honor of Women’s History Month, and in honor of a field that I believe wants progress towards greater representation, the following outlines the methodology, topline findings, why this is happening (hint: it’s not just CEO selection at the root), and most important, what to do about it in order to make change going forward. Because hopefully someday we won’t need Women’s History Month to talk about gender disparities in orchestras when women — all women — will be equally celebrated and championed year-round.

“Closing the workplace gender gap isn’t a side issue. It’s an economic necessity. In the best workplaces, the most talented people can rise, no matter who they are. That should be the expectation for every workplace, everywhere.” — McKinsey Women in the Workplace Report


Because no formal public record of this information previously existed, this data gathering exercise is meant to be a first step in sharing this information — not a full, final, or perfect assessment. Big thank yous go out to John Hong for helping create the shared doc where this data was compiled, to Anwar Nasir and Aiden Feltkamp for their recommendations on process and inclusivity, and to the League of American Orchestras for generously providing the membership list by budget size (this saved hours of looking up each organization’s tax return to ascertain budget). The methodology for this field snapshot is as follows:

  • Data was collected June-August 2020 via a crowdsourced Google doc. The document included 511 orchestras across budget sizes (Group 1–8 per the League of American Orchestras membership tiers), each orchestra’s website URL (to look up the CEO information), and columns to indicate the CEO gender.
  • The directions for crowdsourcing were to refer to the top executive’s professional bio online and refer to how the executive self-identifies. “Select Male if the CEO or Executive Director uses he/him pronouns, and Female if uses she/her pronouns. Select Nonbinary if the person self-identifies as so in their bio. Please do NOT only base your determination on the picture or name.”
  • For self-identified transgender executives, crowdsourcing participants were instructed to check the corresponding gender and also check the transgender box. “Check this box in addition to the Male or Female box if someone identifies as transgender. For example, if someone is included as a trans woman, then check both the “female” box and the “transgender” box. As a reminder, only include “transgender” as an identifier if the person self-identifies as such in their bio.”
  • Of the 511 total organizations, 425 CEOs were looked up, of which 139 were unknown or not found. The smaller the budget, the less likely the info was available (primarily group 7 and group 8 by League definition). That leaves 286 organizations for which data was collected.
  • Given the total population of 1,224 orchestras (i.e. the total known number of orchestras in America, not just the League members) and a sample size of 286 mentioned above, the statistical margin of error is around +- 5% with a confidence level of 95%. In other words, this data — assuming the crowdsourced data collected are accurate — is representative of the sector with a high degree of confidence.
  • This exercise did not examine race or ethnicity because it’s not readily and widely available by this methodology (it’s not consistently disclosed in one’s bio). However, it doesn’t take a study to know that people of color have been prodigiously excluded from leadership roles in classical music. Even though this exercise focuses on gender, ways to combat bias and discrimination of all types are included below.

Top Line Findings

  • Overall, of this sample at the time of data collection, orchestra executives are equally male and female in aggregate. Total data breakdown shows 50% Male, 50% Female, 0% Transgender (actual value 0), 0% Nonbinary (actual value 0).
  • There are no self-identified transgender or nonbinary CEOs. Note: per the methodology above, it is possible there are transgender orchestra executives as they would be categorized by the male or female gender by which he or she identifies; this means nobody’s bio explicitly or additionally identified as transgender.
  • Despite equal numbers of male and female CEOs on the whole, generally the smaller the budget, the more likely to have a female chief executive. Conversely, this means the larger the budget, the more likely to have a male chief executive. Also true is that smaller budgets tend to not have a chief executive and are more likely to have staff positions such as Office Manager or Development Manager reporting directly to the board of directors. Or in the case of the smallest budgets, there is no paid, professional staff, meaning the organization is fully volunteer and/or board-run.
  • The largest budgets, groups 1–3 (annual budgets of about $2.8 Million dollars and higher pre-pandemic), are led by approximately two-thirds men.
  • Only at group 5 (annual budgets of about $1 Million — $2.2 Million pre-pandemic) does the split nearly equalize at 49% male and 51% female. The scales tip female as budgets decrease from there, with up to 74% of the smallest budgets led by women.

Why is this Happening?

In short, because of gender bias and discrimination, even if unintentional. Here are four specific reasons:

1. Men and women and men are evaluated differently. Perhaps this was most famously uncovered in the 2003 Heidi vs. Howard study. Participants were given identical resumes to review, with one exception: half the group had Heidi’s name at the top and half the group had Howard’s. In short, more people wanted to hire Howard, an implicit bias that persists today.

A 2013 study on this same topic found that without any other information besides a candidate’s appearance (which usually makes gender apparent), even though women and men performed the same on an assigned math test, the men were two times as likely to be hired no matter the gender of the hiring manager. And in 2019, LinkedIn released a report showing that despite men and women indicating they are open to new job opportunities at similar rates, hiring managers and recruiters are more likely to click on male candidates’ profiles or applications. At every step of the process, men are favored over women when equally qualified.

2. Additional double standards still exist. In the Heidi vs. Howard study, Heidi and Howard were rated equally competent — as they should have been since their resumes were identical — but Heidi was described as “too assertive,” “not likable,” “self-involved,” and overall rated not as good of a fit for the job. This is called the double bind, where women leaders are generally seen as either competent or likable, but rarely both. As a result, women executives tend to have to prove their competence over and over, often have to work harder for the same recognition as their male peers, and balance all that with expectations of being nurturing and communicative. But if you’re too nurturing, then you’re not competent as the research story goes.

Studies have drilled down into how this bias further manifests in a hiring or recruitment scenario to show that women tend to be evaluated based on experience or track record (proof of what was done), whereas men are more often evaluated on potential (possibility of what might be done), creating a significant disparity in candidate appraisal.

“Damned if you do, doomed if you don’t. Too soft. Too tough. Never just right.” — Catalyst, The Double-Bind for Women in Leadership

3. The problem starts early — well before senior leadership positions. Across all nonprofits, women account for about 75% of the labor force. Yet women are being promoted at disproportionately low rates (both internally and when changing companies externally). One reason for this is performance bias: studies show that we tend to underestimate women’s performance and overestimate men’s. This starts happening at the most junior career levels, which means women are being overlooked for the earliest promotions. Lest anyone think this has to do with attrition in the labor market (i.e. women leaving the paid workforce to stay at home with children), that’s simply incorrect. In fact, for the last five years straight before the pandemic, women and men were leaving their companies at similar rates, and they had similar intentions to remain in the workforce—yet the misalignment in promotion rates persisted. (More on pandemic labor participation below…because that’s another story and it’s code red.)

Another reason for this broken rung on the leadership ladder is because of lack of sponsorship. By and large, white men tend to endorse each other, vouch for each other, mentor and coach each other, and bring others like them along — and women are missing out. Women of color are the most underrepresented group of all rising through the ranks (McKinsey) and are receiving the least amount of sponsorship to do so, but that’s not for lack of desire or qualifications. According to a 2019 Race to Lead survey of more than 4,000 nonprofit employees: women of color with similar qualifications as their white counterparts had more desire to attain leadership positions, yet received the least amount of mentoring within the organization, behind white men, white women, and men of color.

Additionally, women of color are more likely to hold advanced degrees and yet simultaneously the least likely to hold any C-suite positions across all nonprofits. As a sector, this is what it looks like to have systems of oppression in place, and lack of sponsorship for women at all levels of seniority is one of those systems that needs to change.

“If entry-level women were promoted at the same rate as men, the number of women at the SVP-level would more than double.” — LeanIn and McKinsey, Women in the Workplace Report

4. Homogenous people make homogenous choices. People tend to gravitate to people like them, period. And when it comes to selecting the chief executive, who is making that decision? The board. According to BoardSource, 84% of board members are white and only 48% are female. Nonprofit Quarterly reports this drops to 33% when looking at budgets of $25 million and above. CEO gender distribution by budget size looks a lot like the board member gender distribution.

The same can be true of search firms. The group of consultants is often very homogenous, and that impacts the selection process. Research shows that the more a person/candidate is not like the evaluator (i.e. not just different gender, but different race or sexual orientation or religion or disability or something else dissimilar about one’s background), the more there is a tendency to inaccurately and incorrectly evaluate their candidacy when this bias isn’t checked.

How to Make Progress

Knowing the implicit biases that exist is always the first step in overcoming them. And the extensive body of research on this offers a lot of ways to improve, change, and dismantle the old way of hiring not only chief executives, but everyone, so the entire pipeline is intentionally more inclusive for all. This list below is not comprehensive; it pulls some top recommendations from various sources including Work Rules by former Head of People at Google Lazlo Bock, McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace Report, and BIPOC Demands for American Theatre by We See You White American Theatre.

  • Track gender and race at all levels of seniority, and for the board as well. Most for-profit companies now do this. Here’s why: 45% of men think women are well represented in leadership when only 1 in 10 senior leaders in their company is a woman; by comparison, 28% of women think this (Washington Post).
  • Set targets for gender and race, on the stage and in the office. Every top business priority gets measured, so get serious about making these metrics a priority too.
  • Share these metrics with employees.
  • Promote women and BIPOC employees at equal rates as white men, starting at more junior levels. Yes, measure this too.
  • Hold hiring managers at all levels accountable for diversity metrics.
  • Require that diverse candidates be considered in the first round for every open position (must be more than one; no Rooney Rule).
  • Set clear evaluation criteria and specific skills needed before the selection process begins.
  • Write questions to directly address those needed skills and qualifications. Use behavioral questions (“Tell me about a time when…”) when possible. Past behavior best predicts future behavior.
  • Ask the same questions of everyone.
  • Offer employees the flexibility to fit work into their lives. Senior-level women with partners are five times more likely than men in the same situation to do more of the household work and are two times as likely as men at their level to have a partner who works full-time, which means they are far less likely to have a partner at home focused primarily on the house and/or kids. This helps both recruit and retain great talent.
  • When using a search firm, insist on BIPOC consultants/recruiters of varying genders leading the search. Diversify the search firms (great thread with many recommendations here).

“There’s more variance in quality within search firms than across search firms, so selecting the individual search consultants you work with is more crucial than selecting the company.” — Lazlo Bock, former Head of People at Google

Final Thoughts

The orchestra field has a big opportunity ahead. More and more CEOs are approaching retirement (across all industries not just at orchestras), and as the world recovers from the pandemic, more turnover at all levels is likely to unfold. This means there are a lot of chances coming down the pike to make different choices and instill new and different selection processes. At the same time, it’s very concerning that the pandemic has disproportionately affected women, and especially Black women, working mothers, and other women of color, forcing them to drop out of the labor market at alarming rates. We need to disproportionately recruit and welcome women back.

Of course in some ways, this is personal. Enough recruiters and search committees have contacted me at this point that I’ve witnessed first-hand time and again the biased (and often rude) questions that are asked of women but not men and the mismatched expectations and standards. In the end, I know that my privilege as a white, cisgender, heterosexual woman has both benefitted my career and allows me to speak out on these topics more than others — which is a shame because my experiences and stories are far from the worst I’ve heard. The point is that these actions, large and small, have a true negative effect on the industry from top to bottom.

“We can double down on our efforts to address the gender gaps and build a more equitable society,” says Tina Tchen, CEO of Time’s Up who was previously executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls in the Obama administration. In a recent interview with Philanthropy, she continued, “Or we can go in the other direction, in which the inequality gaps just grow and the separation between the multiple communities in our country grows.”

For orchestras, let’s choose the former. Some already have as since this data was compiled, I can think of at least three of those group 1–3 orgs (the ones that skew mostly male) that have since appointed female CEOs following a male predecessor, the largest and most recent being the Boston Symphony. So maybe it’s true that orchestras really do want progress—and are acting on it. Time will tell. And maybe then it will be Women’s History Month all year long.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy 12 Biases We Don’t Know We Have That Make Arts Administration Harder.

Interested in more data-backed strategies to grow revenue at your arts organization? Pre-order my book, Run It like a Business: Strategies to Increase Audiences, Remain Relevant, and Multiply Money — Without Losing the Art.

You’ll learn how to:

  • Grow audiences and keep them coming back again
  • Make our organizations more inclusive
  • Get younger attendees in the seats and on the donor rolls
  • Generate millions more dollars in revenue
  • Continue to create the art we love — without the stress of figuring out how to afford it

Just because your arts organization is a non-profit, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t make money; it means the money the organization makes goes back to fund the mission — whether that’s music, visual arts, theatre, dance, or one of many other mediums that enrich our lives. www.aubreybergauer.com/book

About the Author

Hailed as “the Steve Jobs of classical music” (Observer) and “Sheryl Sandberg of the symphony” (LA Review of Books), Aubrey Bergauer is known for her results-driven, customer-centric, data-obsessed pursuit of changing the narrative for the performing arts. A “dynamic administrator” with an “unquenchable drive for canny innovation” (San Francisco Chronicle), she’s held offstage roles managing millions in revenue at major institutions including the Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera, Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival, and San Francisco Conservatory of Music. As chief executive of the California Symphony, Bergauer propelled the organization to double the size of its audience and nearly quadruple the donor base.

Bergauer helps organizations and individuals transform from scarcity to opportunity, make money, and grow their base of fans and supporters. Her ability to cast and communicate vision moves large teams forward and brings stakeholders together, earning “a reputation for coming up with great ideas and then realizing them” (San Francisco Classical Voice). With a track record for strategically increasing revenue and relevance, leveraging digital content and technology, and prioritizing diversity and inclusion on stage and off, Bergauer sees a better way forward for classical music and knows how to achieve it.

Aubrey’s first book, Run It Like A Business, published in 2024.

A graduate of Rice University, her work and leadership have been covered in the Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Thrive Global, and Southwest Airlines magazines, and she is a frequent speaker spanning TEDx, Adobe’s Magento, universities, and industry conferences in the U.S. and abroad.




Aubrey Bergauer

“The Steve Jobs of classical music.” —Observer | Author: Run It Like A Business (2024) | Working to change the narrative for this business.