The classical music world is steeped in tradition. When diversity issues arise, it can be much more difficult to overcome in an industry that has developed a level of immunity to change and that has stood for 400 years. Discrimination against women had been alleged in hiring practices of many of the world’s top orchestras, but it was very difficult to prove sex-biased hiring.
In the 1980’s the women’s movement in America was in full swing and a lawsuit was filed against the New York Philharmonic for discriminatory hiring practice. As a result, orchestras across the globe began blind auditions as a way of removing gender bias (conscious or unconscious.)
In the 1980’s the top orchestras had no more there than 10% of their musicians who were female. By 1997 it was 25% and today the number is well into the 30/40’s. The size of most major orchestras remained stable and the increase in female representation cannot be attributed to a redistribution of instruments used – reducing the number of bassists – traditionally played by men – in favour of harps and violins played by women. The orchestral sound would be unbalanced. What really was responsible was the introduction of ‘blind auditions’ to overcome possible gender bias in recruitment.
Conductors and other judges set up screens blocking the auditioning musician from view. To further remove gender indication, all auditioning musicians were told to take their shoes off and wear large socks. Some orchestras use it in the first-round while others use it all the way through the recruitment process.
Even when the screen was used only in the first round, it had the effect of making it almost 50% more likely that a woman would proceed forward. The screen also enhanced, by several fold, the likelihood that a female contestant would be the winner in the final round.
The increase in the recruitment of more female musicians since the 1980’s would seem to validate the screen test which had prevented unconscious biases from being factored into an evaluation of the candidate. Today there is a small, but forceful movement to see more female conductors on the podium, a position where it is almost impossible not to notice gender. What started as an experiment has turned into a solution to a pervasive problem in the very conservative and male orientated world of classical music.