CeReNeM, HCR, and Gender Balance

I was recently working on an application that centred on the Huddersfield Contemporary Records (HCR) CD label as part of my new role as Director of the Centre for Research in New Music (CeReNeM) at Huddersfield, which I formally take on starting in August. One of the pages in the application was a list of composers whose works have featured on the label, colour-coded to try to highlight both the gender balance and international diversity of the label. Looking at the list, my impression was, instinctively, that there was something to be proud of, that we seemed to have a pretty good gender balance across our releases.

Putting that data into a pie chart was rather more sobering:

I’m told this is a common phenomenon around issues of equity and equality. In the words of my colleague Liza Lim, paraphrasing a study on the ‘gender perception gap’ from the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media, ‘17% looks like 50%, and 30% looks like 70%’. Seeing the raw truth of the data staring back at me, it was absolutely, immediately, unequivocally clear that, despite my instinctual impression, in truth we still have a long way to go.

To that end, as my first formal act in the new role as Director, I’ve committed to establishing a 50/50 gender balance of composers across HCR’s CD catalogue within five years. And indeed I made that commitment explicitly on the application. It was a risk, in some ways, but I felt that making that commitment, and making it publicly, was crucial—I wanted to hold our collective feet to the fire.

It means, of course, that we will need to actively redress the imbalance. There are a few exciting future releases in the pipeline that are already part of our existing plans that will help, but on their own they’d only move the needle incrementally. And the data above makes it clear that the gender perception gap can trick us—and I suppose by ‘us’ I mean ‘me’—into complacency. Slow, incremental moves aren’t good enough. We’ll need to make a very serious, concerted commitment to meet the target, but it is absolutely clear to me that it’s a target that needs to be met. And I’m posting this here to make sure we’re held accountable.

I am of course aware that this particularly binary approach to gender is itself problematic and outdated, and I’m also acutely aware that racial and ethnic diversity is as problematic for our label as it is across the field of contemporary music, and those issues will also be part of our conversations going forward.

As much as I’m embarrassed that we’re in a position where this kind of project is necessary, I am legitimately excited by it, and eager to get to work.


  1. John Bryan

    Is there any data about the gender balance amongst composers more generally? Is the admirable aim of going for 50/50 actually likely to disadvantage male composers, who may simply be in the majority in the world at large?

    • Aaron Cassidy

      Thanks, John. There’s a lot to unpick there, and probably too much for this platform, but I’ll do my best to at least try.

      First, yes, there are several groups/initiatives that have been collecting and sharing this sort of data. In the UK this has been an important part of Sound & Music’s work in recent years, and there was an important group at Darmstadt led by Ashley Fure that looked not only at data around participation/inclusion but—perhaps more importantly, I would argue—also collected anecdotal information about the professional and educational experiences of women composers, which was often even more troubling than the statistics.

      As for the second question, there are two separate issues. It is certainly the case that gender balance, in particular in the classical/concert music world, is not yet 50/50, but that’s rather the point. All the data seem to suggest that participation levels for women composers decrease at each level of education (from, say, primary school all the way through university staff), and the evidence seems rather clear that expanding opportunities and visibility at the top of that ladder has a direct impact further down. (This is similar to what Liz Dobson’s YSWN research is showing in connection to music technology & STE(A)M participation.) That is, strong, successful, visible models are necessary to redress the imbalance. As for the notion of disadvantaging male composers, this is a non-issue for me. There is clear evidence that the opportunities for success/advancement in the field have not been equitable—certainly historically, even in the fairly recent past—so this sort of argument becomes circular and self-fulfilling very quickly. If the participation rates, particularly towards the upper end of the ladder (in which I’d place an institution like CeReNeM) are not yet equal, that is a reflection of an imbalance of opportunities on the way up that ladder, and it is my view that quite explicit (and indeed data-driven) programmes are necessary to upend the disparity.

      Obviously the complexities of debates around affirmative action programmes are too intricate for a little blog post (there are, for example, 5.8m Google hits for ‘Title IX research‘, which deals with a single piece of legislation specific to federal funding for education in the USA, and most of the research is specific to the law’s impact on participation in sports), but hopefully that at least gives a context for our new initiative.

  2. lindaokeeffe

    Fantastic news, as founder of the Women in Sound Women on Sound organisation, http://www.wiswos.com, located in Lancaster, I am happy to support an activity like this in any way I can.
    Linda O Keeffe

  3. ” Is the admirable aim of going for 50/50 actually likely to disadvantage male composers, who may simply be in the majority in the world at large?” What struck me about this question is the fact that there could be damage to male composers. Of course there will be damage. How can we have a better representation of women whithout hurting men? I have listen to 61 days of streaming music composed by 1731 women in classical music so far. It is a shame there aren’t more Women’s Works in Concert Halls. Here in Canada, for the 2018-2019 season of 6 main large Orchestras, there will be 95% of played Works by men. 95%.

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