Why are Women Underrepresented in Music Performance?

Despite the fact that women have achieved greater equality in recent decades with regard to increased employment opportunities, the realm of music performance still remains overwhelmingly dominated by men. This trend isn’t exclusive to Ethiopia: countries in the West also feature predominately male orchestras and bands that perform at prestigious musical venues. EBR’s adjunct writer Meseret Mamo spoke with musicians and explored the issue further to parse through the different explanations behind why women are underrepresented as instrumentalists. This article is a rerun from EBR 38.


Musicologists have long argued the importance of music education, performance and appreciation as a way to promote creativity and enrich the expression of a particular culture. Yet, like many other professions in Ethiopia, women are underrepresented in performing instrumental music. The global trend is no different: there is a dearth of women involved in orchestral performance, either as performers or conductors.

In fact, even after women have enrolled and graduated from formal music training programmes in greater numbers, their involvement in stage performance has been minimal compared to men. According to The Economist, some of the most elite European music conservatories have reached greater gender parity in recent years. Still, despite the increased number of women, they face challenges rising to the upper echelons of classical music – namely as conductors or soloists in orchestras.

The trend isn’t exclusive to Europe. According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, orchestras throughout that country feature an alarmingly low percentage of women. For the 2014/15 performance season, the percentage of male soloists dominated each of the four largest cities’ preeminent orchestras, comprising 67Pct in Vancouver, 74Pct in Toronto, 79Pct in Ottawa and 84Pct in Montreal.

In Ethiopia, a similar dynamic exists, although more acutely, as female graduates are statistically less likely to pursue formal training or careers as musical performers. Since 1970, when women started attending the Yared School of Music in the College of Performing and Visual Arts at Addis Ababa University (AAU), they have constituted roughly 30Pct of the total number of graduates.

The School has witnessed an increase in female enrolment over the years. In fact, some years women outnumber men: in the 2001/02 academic year when women graduates were 17 while there were only five men. However, except for a few string orchestras, it is rare to see women playing instruments on stages or in different public venues. In the past ten years, there have only been four women music instrument players who work in the three theatre halls of Addis Ababa.

A research paper prepared by Yordanos Zena, who teaches at the Yared School of Music, provides data that bolsters the lack of female musicians engaged in instrument performance. According to data collected from 50 female graduates, 44Pct became music teachers, 28Pct entered stage performance and 4Pct are engaged in other sectors. The remaining, roughly a quarter of the sample, were not employed in any field.

Some women say that they were discouraged from pursuing a career as performers due to the demands of performing as a novice in the Addis Ababa music scene. For instance, Brihan Mekonen trained to play musical instruments but ended up pursuing a career outside of music. She graduated from the Yared School of Music in 2009, where she studied violin. Now she works at the National Cultural Centre as a senior expert after attempting to pursue a career in performance. “After graduation, I tried to work in nightclubs, but the fact that I had to stay late at night made me uncomfortable,” Brihan told EBR. “I stopped performing in night clubs [for that reason].”

Alemnesh Awol, who also graduated from AAU, where she studied flute, works as an instructor there and shares Birhan’s sentiments. “Yes it is true that we women won’t feel confident to go out public and play musical instrument,” she said.

Financial obstacles may also be the blame. For instance, Alemnesh mentioned the need to have a large amount of money to own a music instrument as a potential hindrance. “A flute costs about ETB40,000, which is unaffordable for most,” she argues. “On top of this, there is a gender [discrimination] issue.”

Alemnesh’s observations reflect of a larger phenomenon of gender discrimination that insiders say is rife throughout classical music globally. Writing in The Guardian, renowned classical pianist James Rhodes wrote about the pervasive attitudes of sexism that inform the music industry: “When women have to cope not just with a society that places physical attractiveness ahead of everything else but also with an industry that has an ingrained sense of entitled chauvinism, there is cause for alarm and shame in equal measure…. What we need to see in classical music…is an immutable, instant and resolute change in attitude from the top down.”

However, Ezra Abate, a musician and instructor with more than 30 years of experience, challenges the claim that women are less engaged in the music profession. He said it is difficult to conclude only by counting the number of women performing in bands, nightclubs and orchestras. “There are many women music instructors and researchers, which I give more credit than performing on any stage,” he said. “We can’t exclude them from the list. They are the ones who produce the new generation of music professionals.”

For him music is not gender-sensitive and it is a matter of preference that women don’t play in musical bands and in nightclubs. “I don’t think there is gender bias in recruiting women performers as long as they come forward and have competence.”

Nebyou Girma, a Modern Art Development Senior Officer at Hager Fikir Theatre, also argues that playing music is about competency and commitment. He feels many women are simply too shy to show their competence and that is why it is uncommon to see women playing musical instruments in public venues. Nebyou has been in the industry since 1988 as a keyboardist and as a piano teacher at the Yared School of Music. He has also been training the Hager Fikir modern music band since 2009.

He has a female guitarist on his team and remembers how shy she used to be when he first recruited her. “We were looking for a guitarist and I saw her performance, she was great and we gave her the chance to work with us, but for a long time she was very shy,” he recalls. “Maybe they don’t see playing instrument in front of the public as feminine.”

Scholars who study gender disparities in music performance argue perception of women’s roles are part of the problem. According to a study by Amy Louise Phelps at the University of Iowa, stereotypes of gender roles are entrenched among professional musicians, especially classical performers. She notes this is especially true “in orchestras, [where] preconceived ideas of femininity and masculinity can lead to discrimination when fewer women are hired for what are considered masculine jobs,” like performing as a soloist or being a conductor.

Phelps argues that the construction of women as demure, timid performers informs the type of instruments that are seen as a “good fit” for them, which may affect how they’re viewed by band and orchestra leaders. “Gender constructions have dictated that women should not play instruments that are loud, heavy or require physical exertion.” This, she urges, further exacerbates not only the hiring practices in certain orchestras, but in pay differentials as well, as women are less likely to be hired for non-string instruments positions, such as brass instruments or as percussionists. “Brass players are often the highest paid in an orchestra, thus women musicians face economic discrimination when they face bias at the hiring level or in the workplace.”

For Rome Negewo, 25, a guitarist in Nebyou’s band at Hager Fikir Theatre, being considered as shy is a misunderstanding in the local context. She says she is in the band because she decided to pursue music as a career and such a lack of determination is the reason behind many women’s decision to change careers. Rome entered the music profession later in life: she studied accounting and worked as one before enrolling in music school. She told EBR her experience of establishing a female music band twice, stating both attempts failed due to the lack of drive from the other members. “I didn’t succeed because it doesn’t have a quick reward and this frustrates many in the team.”

Yet these reasons, while rooted for some in lived experience, are largely subjective and don’t fully explain the dynamics that exist in the upper echelons music performance globally. Some insiders argue that the lack of orchestrated bands that involve string instrument players – an area in which women are statistically better represented– is an example of systemic reasons why women aren’t rising through the ranks of musical performance.

But even for women who perform brass instruments – the realities of the business present harsh facts. Tigist Sime, a keyboardist and the only female member of the modern music band at the Addis Ababa Theatre and Cultural Hall, agrees that commitment and persistence are the key factors to stay in the profession. “You need determination to succeed in this field, especially if you are a woman,” says Tigist, who studied trumpet, graduating in 1997. She said the profession is not easy nor are there great monetary benefits.

Still, others argue that blatant discrimination is the primary culprit, even stating that some managers of bands and orchestras are against hiring women. In order to remedy this, some orchestras have implemented ‘blind auditions’ – that is, auditions in which prospective players perform music behind a curtain, disguising the gender of the musician in order to quell the effects of implicit or explicit bias.

A study entitled “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of “Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians,” found that this method of hiring orchestra performers greatly improves the changes of women being hired. According to the study, these types of auditions can explain “between 30Pct and 55Pct of the increase in the proportion female among new hires and between 25Pct and 46Pct of the increase in the percentage female in the orchestras since 1970.”

With this in mind, a number of performers and musicologists argue for a number of remedies, including blind auditions and increasing the number of women in orchestras as a way to create more role models for young women who hope to excel in the field. In Ethiopia, this can be an especially important solution, as the dearth of female performers can beget a cycle of underrepresentation. Scholars like Phelps argue that the only way to thwart the pervasiveness of gender disparities in music is to challenge stereotypes throughout all levels – from music education to hiring – in an effort to address the unique needs of women who choose to perform music as a career.


EBR 10th Year • Apr 2022 • No. 106

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