Women composers in Australia: Really? Only a quarter?

Sally Macarthur recently wrote an article for The Conversation about the under-representation of women in Australian concert and radio programming, a topic that has been a subject of lively discussion in the United States over the past year. I was surprised to see the New Music Network, a grassroots contemporary music organisation, criticised alongside the ABC for the gender imbalance in their programming. Does the Partial Durations blog suffer the same disparity? Thanks to my obsessive tagging of composers’ names (I knew it would come in handy), presence at every possible new music concert in Melbourne and occasional interstate contributors, Partial Durations is a geographically and chronologically limited data set that nonetheless provides a cross section of new music concerts from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Metropolis New Music Festival to barely-advertised new music nights at local art galleries. However, in counting performances—especially in the case of new music—we may be looking at the wrong end of the data. Shouldn’t we be surprised that, to begin with, possibly only around 25% of composers are women?

Macarthur draws this figure from the list of composers represented by the Australian Music Centre. As Macarthur points out, despite a quarter of composers being women, very few women composers can be found in the ABC’s Classic 100: Music in the Movies and Triple J’s Hottest 100 of 20 Years. Eleven percent of works presented in the New Music Network’s current concert series are by women composers.

A quick count finds 29% of the 94 composers reviewed on Partial Durations to be women. This is hardly parity, but certainly suggests a greater representation of women composers in new music concerts than in the New Music Network series alone.

Even if my statistics gathered in Melbourne over the past five months were representative of the amount of works by contemporary women composers performed in Australia as a whole, the AMC figure for the number of women composers might not be accurate. The AMC list captures those composers with a few commissions and performances already under their belts, but does not necessarily capture student composers and composers working on the wackier side of the new music spectrum. I suspect a more inclusive figure might show a greater proportion of women, probably closer to that suggested by the Partial Durations count. Even if this were so, why are these women not getting commissions and breaking into the compositional mainstream?

Emma Ayres via Macarthur suggests three reasons why there are so few performances and broadcasts of compositions by women: Lack of familiarity with women’s compositions, the lower number of women composers and the assumption that music by women is of a lower quality than music by men. With new music lack of familiarity is really not an issue. Most concerts include world premières and it is often difficult to hear a work more than once. This leaves us with the actual number of women composers and public perception of the quality of works by women. I imagine the latter could have a lot to do with the former by determining how many young women composers are encouraged and given the opportunities to continue in their careers, but perhaps some actual emerging composers could share their views on this.

5 thoughts on “Women composers in Australia: Really? Only a quarter?

  1. Hi! I’m a student composer at the con in sydney! Just for a possible point of interest…in my year..out of 22 composition students…there are only 6 of us “girls”…!

    Responding to the latter part of your blog, I feel that we as “young women” are equally encouraged and given opportunities…It of course helps to to be in an environment where we are surrounded by many inspiring “women” composers – Rosalind Page, Sandy Evans and Mary Finsterer to name a few!

  2. I am head of composition at the UTAS Conservatorium of Music in Hobart. Out of 12 students this year (including two PhDs) I have only one female student. I suspect I may be the only head of composition in an Australian university music school who is female.

  3. Hello from the ‘wackier side’! Although I’ve mainly written alt.rock/worship songs in the past, over the last year or so I’ve churned out around 20 Brazilian ‘Choro’ (google it) which have been given enthusiastic (& rather humbling) approval by the members of ‘Brisbane Roda de Choro’. Now I’m facing the challenge of whether to take them further eg record them, maybe get them published online, maybe plug them to a few performing/recording artists or whatever – all of which requires time, organising other musos and $$…not sure where to start and whether would be worth all the time and effort, especially considering I write in a rather ‘niche’ (alright – ‘wacky’!) genre!

    It does seem harder for women to get recognition. Are these figures due to some kind of a genetic thing? Or are women just less likely to have the time/resources/contacts/support/push’n’shove/whatever it takes to get the recognition? Might be interesting to see if the gender comparison figures change over time. Composing’s not an easy way to make a $ unless you hit some sort of huge bigtime. Can be sooooo time consuming…

    Of course there will always be many genuine but unregognised writers/composers. Whether the m/f percentages on these are simiilar – who knows?

    Kudos to Danielle Bentley for addressing the imbalance.

    (ps my Brazilian/Portugese penname is Jacinta Sinu – Jenni Bell just didn’t have the right ‘ring’ to it:)

  4. In my own personal situation – which may be very different from other peoples situations – I have had to focus on being financially sustainable (which has also included being the main financially responsible individual in both of my major relationships). This need to pay rent (and other bills e.g. medical bills) has come as a priority, and my creative practice has fallen behind being able to survive daily life. Despite having a composition degree, having worked for both the Australian Music Centre and ABC Classic FM, I have never applied to be a represented sound artist/composer of the AMC (no time as I’ve had to keep the day jobs going) and the last time anything of mine was broadcast by Classic FM was perhaps almost a decade ago. Why?? Because despite my desire to not give up on creative practice, and even with a preference to work in the creative industries, I haven’t been in the financial position to prioritise any creative desires/dreams or otherwise I may have had.

    Ask almost any of my female creative practitioner friends (names withheld) who are mainly in their 30s and 40s and if they aren’t solely surviving on their own, they too have had to be the financially responsible individual and have partially financially supported their partners, as well as being the main carer for their young children. Those women (and also shy men) who have also worked across the music/technology area have also struggled, as I personally feel that so far, there is a certain personality/skillset-type that succeed in technology-based male-dominated industries. Some of the younger women I have met have less confidence in their skills – right across the arts, not just limited to music. So perhaps it’s not lack of opportunities, its more encouragement needed to counter the discouragement that they ha

    Don’t take my words for this, as I’m likely to seem like I’m ranting from on top of my soapbox.

    There are other references worth using to contextualise this issue:

    Don’t Give Up Your Day Job, David Throsby and Virginia Hollister (2003)

    ABC News, Pay gap between men and women wider now than 20 years ago (Sept 2013)

    Stepping off the soapbox now…

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