Why Women Aren’t Equals In New Music Leadership and Innovation

"Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead" by Sheryl Sandberg
“Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” by Sheryl Sandberg

I haven’t talked about this enough and though I recognize how blind auditions has certainly leveled the playing field of performers in Orchestras.  As I mentioned in an older post Robert Levine, does look at how most positions of leadership in the Orchestra and in the management and staff of Orchestras isn’t particularly balanced.

Levine also mentions there seems to be a disparity among instrument choices, for example women are far more represented as flute and harp players which seems to indicate an early gender bias for instrumental choices in schools well before the level of college and then professional life.  This may very well be one of the biggest impediments–how early gender associations for particular fields leads to an asymmetry in how children eventually move on into fields.  A recent post at NewMusicBox by Chicago based  Ellen McSweeney discusses a number of that early gender biasing as she’s experienced them as well as how the research is showing it.

The title of my post is taken from hers and below I’m just going to repost the list of research items she condenses from Sheryl Sandberg’s (COO of Facebook) book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, with McSweeney’s commentary.


1. Women musicians, like all women, pay a “likability tax” when they are self-promoting, assertive, and successful. One of the most important sociological facts Sandberg emphasizes is that success and likability are positively correlated for men, and negatively correlated for women. A strong body of research demonstrates that if a man has an ambitious, thriving, and successful career, his peers will find him more likable; if a woman has the same kind of career, her peers will find her less likable. Two studies in the Journal of Applied Psychology called this the “penalty for success.” Women artists pay a social tax for their professional achievements that men do not. Women musicians cannot promote themselves in the same way that men do without facing negative consequences in the way they are perceived personally. This is particularly problematic for performing artists, who must cultivate personal connections and an enthusiastic fan base (read: people who like you) in order to survive. Women find themselves in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. We shouldn’t be surprised that they might shy away from career developments that would make them, say, Chicagoan of the Year in Music—or that when it comes time to choose, journalists don’t find those women leaders quite as appealing.
2. Women musicians are less likely to embark on high visibility projects, take professional risks, and conceive of themselves as leaders—which leaves them at a distinct disadvantage in developing entrepreneurial careers. Research in “gender differences in task choice” has demonstrated that, when given the opportunity to choose a more challenging or risky task at work, women were far less likely than men to choose that path. Other research has demonstrated that millennial women are less likely than their male peers to characterize themselves as leaders and visionaries. This does not mean, of course, that women cannot take risks and establish visionary careers; it means that, due to gender socialization, they are statistically less likely to even conceive of that as a possibility.
3. Women consistently underestimate their own talents and abilities, leaving them at a disadvantage in the essential realm of self-promotion. Research in Lean In indicates that even when women and men perform equally well as surgeons, the women are likely to believe that they have performed worse. When it comes time for women artists to announce a new commission, upload a new performance video, or send a press release, how might this chronic devaluation of their abilities affect them?
4. When choosing who to hire, men are significantly more likely to choose a man. The consulting firm Innovisor found this to be true in more than twenty countries. So in a field where most composers, conductors, curators, music writers, and “visionaries” are men, the situation of a mostly male circle of influencers is likely to perpetuate itself.
5. Similarly, senior men are more likely to mentor young men than young women. Sandberg, drawing on research from the Journal of Vocational Behavior, notes that “mentoring relationships often form when the younger person reminds the more senior person of themselves. This means that men will often gravitate towards sponsoring younger men, with whom they connect more naturally. Since there are so many more men at the top of every industry, the proverbial old-boy network continues to flourish.” This means that fewer women musicians are being sponsored and mentored by influential, senior men in their field.
Having a mentor relationship misperceived as a romantic or sexual relationship is also a problem. Research in The Sponsor Effect shows that 64% of high-ranking executive men are hesitant to have a meeting with a more junior woman, and half of junior women avoided close contact with senior men. This means that in crucial social settings, like post-concert beers or a brainstorming coffee date, young women are less comfortable seeking out mentorship that could yield enormous professional dividends in the early stages of their careers.
6. Women are taught from an early age to worry about whether they can have children and a career. Five years before I had my first real boyfriend, my violin teacher was talking to me about balancing work and family life. Let’s face it: this seed of anxiety was never planted in the minds of my male colleagues. Sandberg cites research which shows that in two Princeton University studies—one conducted in 1974, one in 2006—there was a dramatic disparity between male and female students’ perceptions of whether work and family would be a conflict for them. In both studies, twice as many women foresaw this as a problem. This inner worry, Sandberg claims, means that women who want families “lean back” from their careers rather than leaning in.


This recent piece by Deborah Copaken Kogan gives a depressing account of how a career can be shaped by these forces.


3 thoughts on “Why Women Aren’t Equals In New Music Leadership and Innovation

  1. ” … it means that, due to gender socialization, they are statistically less likely to even conceive of that as a possibility.”

    Minor comment: as someone who experienced that, this was a conscious thing to learn. It’s not something that women absorb from nowhere. You see it happen: you are made not to take this path because taking it requires that you get other people to come on board with you. Visionaries are not visionaries on their own. They require others around them to help bring their vision to life; there is no such thing as a single visionary. Had Steve Jobs been Stephanie Jobs, he would have been told to shut up, stop being so nasty (what a bitch!), turned every single VC and loan manager flat off, been shunted into a nothing job with no direct reports, and never accumulated the followers that made it possible for him to achieve what he did. The “likability tax” will kill you.

    It’s particularly bad in school since many entrepreneurs start up in college, and that is where an entrepreneurial woman is most likely to be surrounded by young guys in their 20s who are horny and hostile about it, and not under any circumstances ready to work with her as a peer — and definitely not as a leader.

    And it’s not a matter of “don’t let it bother you!” either. If people refuse to work with you simply because you are female, you can’t wear a dildo in your pants and make them listen. This is not a problem with women. You can’t just decide to “not let it bother you!” and magically make compliant followers appear out of thin air. And again — followers are necessary. There are relatively few very large things that can be achieved as an individual. Enormous entrepreneurial tasks are usually way too big for one person to do.

    I say again — the solution is not to gently tell the woman she’s not supposed to mind when her peers react with naked hostility to her and either shout her down or steal her ideas. There is no magic cute lady-way to get a roomful of 20-something men on board with a pushy, ambitious woman with entrepreneurial dreams.

    I’m just trying to cut off that invariable conclusion that people reach: that if only women would find the right way to express their dreams — pushy without being threatening, wheedling yet tough and uncompromising, powerful but in a weak, vulnerable, and appealing sort of way! — men would naturally be happy to follow them. It’s not possible. This is not a problem with women.


      1. It’s a real shame since the 20s is when most entrepreneurial efforts get moving, and it puts women incredibly far behind the curve. I often think that there’s a reason why Zoe Keating’s entire oeuvre is centered on a method for turning a multiple-person job into a one-person job. She found a way to not have to bring anyone else on board — of course, now she can because people see what she meant. But getting to that point required finding a way to do the whole thing herself.

        I know I’m a bit passionate about this topic, but it’s unbelievably frustrating to hear people constantly talking about “how do we get more women involved in X?” and they never seem to want to suggest the solution: stop getting in their way. The proposed solutions always assume that girls are just too timid and silly and afraid to rock the boat, or believe it’s not “cool” or some rot — they always assume something’s wrong with girls, and that changing them is the answer.

        Am digging for some interesting quotes for your latest post as well, where you talk about orchestra crises back to 1904. I have to rifle through one of my tomes on Haendel and find a quote from a broadsheet in 170-something where someone is talking about how the opera is doomed to failure because ticket prices don’t cover everything and instead they are forced to rely on donations from “Persons of Quality.”


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