Research Finds Pattern of Sexism in Classical Music Industry

Recent research reported on by the Observer has discovered a pattern of sexism and unconscious bias towards professional women pianists, creating a difficult path for women to advance their careers in the classical musical industry.

Fiona Sinclair, chief executive of the Leeds International Piano Competition says, “Fewer than 23 percent of career pianists are women, yet in the conservatoires it’s roughly 50:50. As they leave college, the men soar while the women are not getting opportunities. The more we get into actual statistics, it’s clear that something’s broken. The problem persists at the top piano level – festivals, recordings, venues – with men generally dominating everything.” Additionally, Sinclair calls out that “only 18 percent of the most recent top 40 international piano competitions have been won by women.”

Founded in 1963, the Leeds International Piano Competition is held every three years. In the history of the event, only two women have received the top prize. For the upcoming 2024 competition, musicians’ names, nationality, age, and the conservatoire where they studied will be concealed from the jurors in an effort to mitigate any unconscious basis towards women performers.

In addition to the gender gap found in the pianism profession, a 2022 survey from the Independent Society of Musicians uncovered a presence of sexual harassment towards women pianists in their field. One survey response stated “I was told, as a female musician, that I would only advance my career if I was prepared to give sexual favours.”

Vick Bain, former president of Independent Society of Musicians who co-authored the study, stated, “I’ve heard it said that women are not as good at music as men, not as good instrumentalists, not as obsessed and therefore they don’t practice, that women can’t play the big heavyweight concertos of Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky because they’re frail little things and can’t produce enough sound. That’s just not true. It’s always: ‘We’re going to blame the women, not our sexism.’”

In an effort to combat the prejudice towards women in the classical musical industry, the 2024 Leeds International Piano Competition will introduce a new award for outstanding performance or music by a female composer. The final round of the competition will be held over the course of 10 days this upcoming September.

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