On becoming a 'woman conductor'

Becoming a 'woman conductor': unconscious gender bias in Oxford’s choral scene 

Meghan Quinlan, Associate Conductor

A powerful message by James Murphy on unconscious bias against female conductors has been making the rounds on social media. While gender bias would seem to be less of an issue for choral conductors—at least in Canada, where I grew up, and where most choral conductors are women—in Oxford it’s still a palpable issue. A few weeks ago I went to a preliminary talk on a sociological study of Oxford’s choirs (‘The Dreaming Choirs of Oxford’), where I learned that only two conductors out of the university’s thirty-something collegiate choirs are women. This didn’t surprise me much, mainly because I’m one of those two conductors. (What did surprise me is that there’s another female choral director at another Oxford college—if you’re reading this, please get in touch [solidarity!]).

Why are these statistics so discouraging? In the discussion following the talk, someone expressed an idea I’d held privately for a long time, namely that the top Oxbridge choral foundations operate within a largely hermetic system: boys have the most rigorous opportunities for developing their musicianship by singing huge quantities of challenging music in all-male mixed choirs; some of those boys become choral scholars, organists, or lay clerks; and many follow an apparently natural path into conducting. Many, too, become teachers at schools that can afford advanced music education, in which a new generation of would-be boy choristers and choral scholars is expertly trained; and the cycle continues (the socio-economic and racial statistics of Oxbridge choirs are a whole other issue...). The situation is beginning to change somewhat now: there are at least two liturgical girls’ choirs in Oxford, and while I’m wary of the potential exclusivity of any homosocial choir, no matter its gender, my hope is that those girls will learn to sing music of just as much unfettered difficulty, variety, and beauty as that of their male peers (the repertoire certainly exists).

For now though, the hegemony of the male foundation choir, and its overwhelmingly male leadership, breeds a certain kind of atmosphere throughout the choral scene that was difficult for me to pinpoint as an outsider, since I had never experienced anything like it. It reminded me of the medieval lovesongs I was studying, which mostly had male narrators, and whose audiences were likely also male. Although these lovesongs are ostensibly about a courtly lady, most scholars agree that they were really about performing one’s masculinity, showing one’s prowess with words and music in the same way a knight might show his skill in battle. The sense of competition is particularly striking in the jeux-partis, debate songs in which two interlocutors debate rude questions in alternating stanzas, showing off their verbal cleverness by using their opponents’ rhyme schemes (something like post-evensong banter, maybe?).

I’ve spoken with some of my choral friends about the latent competitiveness of the Oxford choral scene. At its best, it pushes people to become better musicians, fosters the best choral sight-reading standards in the world, and provides young boys and university students with a world-class music education. At its worst, it becomes an agonistic game in which the goal is to sight read something perfectly with as little rehearsal time as possible, potentially emptying the music of all devotional and artistic integrity. Underpinning this competitive dynamic is the need to demonstrate one’s skill, to prove oneself. And these bonds of competition and jocular banter are, for the mostpart, between men (lads lads lads). Similar bonds exist in the informal mentorships forged between male conductors and their male protegés, in the former’s encouragement of the latter, and in their shared body language, insider tips, and gossip. Such relationships are, of course, potentially very fruitful in themselves; it’s their exclusivity that causes problems. As Murphy emphasises in his video, this is not a matter of misogynistic intent but of unconscious bias. Since there are so few female conductors here, it doesn’t occur to everyone in positions of power that young women might also make knock-your-socks-off-amazing conductors.

What effect does this have on women? I can only speak for myself, though I don’t think I’m alone. Fortunately, my mentor growing up was a brilliant and fearless Kazakh conductor who also happened to be a woman, Zimfira Poloz, as were two of the conductors I most admired while living in Oslo, Grete Pedersen and Tone Bianca Dahl. Because of their masterful skill, confidence, sensitivity, and power, I internalised early on not only the fact that women conducted, but also that they were kick-ass amazing at it. In fact I never thought about conducting as a gendered profession at all before moving to the UK. It was only after moving here that I saw myself as part of the more rarified category of ‘woman conductor’. This change arose gradually out of the realisation that everyone else was a man and that I was not like them.

Meghan conducting the choir at Temple Church, December 2016

This had a strange effect on me. In a study published by Berlin psychologists in 2008, women were shown to score better than men on mental rotational tests (spatial aptitude integral to maths) when the women imagined they were stereotypical males and the men imagined they were stereotypical females, suggesting their performance was affected by an internalisation of essentialist gender qualities into their own identity. These women were constrained by the very fact that they identified as women; so strong were the norms in which they’d been acculturated (i.e. boys are better than girls at maths) that those norms became a self-fulfilling prophecy, a phenomenon known as stereotype threat. By discovering my own ‘otherness’, by encountering myself as ‘woman conductor’ rather than ‘conductor’, I experienced something similar: all of the patriarchal expectations and stereotypes of the word ‘woman’ seemed to lay themselves more heavily upon me and I felt less free to be eccentric, aggressive, and funny as a conductor, qualities I’d internalised as being male. It wasn’t that I had a problem aligning myself with that glorious 50% of the population—it’s rather that the word ‘woman’ became for me, in Luce Irigaray’s words, ‘a name used to eclipse the feminine and replace it’. The problem was one of patriarchal association. And those associations were reinforced, I think, by the dearth of humans of my gender in positions of power within the choral community here.

What do we imagine when we think of ‘women conductors’, then? And how can we align these associations more closely with the boundless reality of the conductor who also happens to be a woman? At the end of Murphy’s video, he provides a list of over a hundred female conductors of professional ensembles available for hire. Recognising the names of some of those women, and being acquainted with the genius of their work, I was distressed by the incongruity I felt between the subtle temptation to reduce that list to a pity project (we ‘should’ hire them because they’re women—it’ll be good for PR) and the deep knowledge of the stunning, fierce, gentle, clever, goosebump-inducing, and challenging music these people have made (Grete Pedersen, for instance, is the grand conducting matriarch of an entire country); these women are some of the best and most influential musicians alive today. Given all of this skill and artistry, I’m dreaming of Oxford spires whose sanctuaries are full of women conducting, women who are appreciated for their humanity and musicianship rather than the extent to which their tokenness might score social media points. This is not the kind of issue that goes away just by posting a video or status, activities so often associated with virtue marking (although they can really help too). Oxford choral musicians need to have a conversation about the trappings of masculinity, the price of certain aspects of ‘tradition’, and the young stars they are unwittingly holding back.

[1] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, 1990), p18

Meghan Quinlan is Sansara's Associate Conductor, currently studying for a DPhil in Musicology at Oxford University where she is the director of the choir of wolfson college

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