A Look at Women’s Status in Music Academia

  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18177/sym.2011.51.sr.29
  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26513059

In the early twentieth century, Australia’s first female music doctorate, Ruby Davy (1883 - 1949), was denied academic appointment. Australia’s academic institutions refused to hire her although she had been an excellent student and had received numerous awards. This is an early example of the “good enough to train but not good enough to hire” mentality that unfortunately still exists in many higher learning institutions today.1 Indeed, despite what certain scholars believe regarding the advancement of women in music academia, statistically women have not reached equity “in the sacred grove.”2 Women still lag behind men in post-secondary music institutions, when it comes to rank, field and senior administrative positions. 

In this essay I study the status of women in music academia from the 1970s to the present. Several studies conducted by The College Music Society and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) show that the status of women in music academia today is problematic. In the 1970s, for instance, the “lower ranks” of academic positions (part-time and assistant levels) increased in a one-year period (1975-1976 to 1976-1977). But, the “higher ranks” decreased; that is, the ranks “full professor” and “associate professor” were given to fewer women (a drop of 5.7% and 6.6% respectively).3 Adrienne Block, in a prologue to Barbara Renton’s study of the status of women faculty, states: “it is clear that women are not being promoted to fill these places (professor and associate professor), while men are being promoted to the top ranks faster than before.”4 Barbara Renton’s work reveals a paucity of women in certain academic fields of music study. At the professor level, tenured men in music history/theory were more numerous than tenured music history/theory women by 10.05%. The same imbalance obtained in instrument/performance, where the appointment of men increased by 14.97% while those for women increased only by 4.28%. 

Renton’s studies show inequality between the genders with respect to promotions. She concluded that only men enjoyed the increase in the number of positions in the upper two ranks, whereas women joined the “lowest level” in greater numbers. The only field in which the gender gap was less significant was in music education (5.53% gap). Here male appointments increased over the one-year span by 8.33%; for women, they increased by only 3.00%. One wonders if this increase at the assistant professor level led to more associate professor appointments, but Renton saw the situation differently. Despite the growing number of women with doctoral degrees in music, women in the 1970s were not being promoted to the “upper tenured ranks in significant proportions.”5 Renton concluded:

The data show that an increase of 66 doctoral degrees held by men was paralleled by an increase of 79 male professors and an average of 76 tenured positions. However, the increase of 26 doctoral degrees held by women was paralleled by an increase of eight female associate professors and a decrease of two female professors, for an average of six tenured positions. It appears that even with the doctoral qualifications, women were not promoted proportionately.6

Although many women held doctoral degrees, they were not moving up the ranks.

The data still challenge the idea that women’s status in the mid-seventies was acceptable. One result of the findings is that the percentage of degrees awarded to women increased at all degree levels: bachelor's 43.15% to 45.3%; master's 39.5% to 44.8%; doctoral 13.3% to 21.3%. Hence, women earned 23% of the advanced degrees in 1973 and this increased by .9% in 1974. Yet in employment terms, the number of part-time women was 25.77% compared to part-time men at 6.67% in history/theory; 20.12% part-time women compared to part-time men at 2.88% in instrument/performance; and 23.81% part-time women compared to part-time men at 23.08% in music education. It is not clear why women occupied so much of the part-time population. Were family concerns impinging upon women’s developing their intellectual identity? Was this again a sign that women had to defer their academic ambitions? Aisenberg & Harrington (1988) noted that postponing academic ambitions to attend to family is not uncommon; it has a historical tradition.

Two reports from the mid-1980s also established a dismal pattern: few gains for women, many gains for men. In the “College Report No. 5,” Block found that professorial jobs for women in college faculties decreased and that the pool of qualified female candidates had not been absorbed.7 Regarding rank, she noted that from 1910 men held the “more prestigious, secure, and better paid positions.”8 She also observed that women made the most strides only at the end of the nineteenth century (between 1870 and 1890). The largest increase in women’s filling of faculty positions (in all fields) was by 12% in the study's time span of 20 years, that is, between 1870 and 1890. Yet from the nineteenth century to the twentieth century (1890 to 1984), women’s appointments increased by only 5%. Concerning rank, there was no marked change in the 1980s: “women continued to fill the ‘lowest level’” of faculty positions: “the untenured and the part-time.”9 This information is shown in Table 1. Of the total academic population from the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties, the rank of female full professor had risen by only 0.2%.


Block also found that tenure-track positions in music faculties followed a ratio of two men to one woman. She also saw fewer women than men in senior administration,10 and in her analysis, she postulated that this was occurring because of a lack of implementation of “affirmative action” initiatives. She concludes that hiring practices had not been “sex-blind.”11 The loss in positions and the increase in the representation of men at the senior level played significant roles in creating the imbalance. Block also observed that women in administration were prepared and ambitious, but they received almost no opportunities. Susan Guess-Weckler, from whose work she (Block) drew, found that less than one-half of The College Music Society’s figures represented women administrators (8.7%), “the usual route to these positions [being] scholarship and rank”; Block noted that this is next to impossible in environments with a heavy emphasis on teaching.12 She saw that “traditional practices of higher education, which discriminate against women” prevailed.13 Finally, Block warned that academia was a “shrinking job market.”14 Qualified music graduates, then, should look to “performance, criticism, publishing, recording, the business aspect of music, and arts funding and administration.”15 More women have fared better outside of academia, i.e., in major orchestras and popular music as vocalists, particularly in the easy-listening category.16

Among the successes reported on in the 1980s studies is the fact that more women graduated with advanced degrees. From 1976/1977 to 1985/1986, the number of doctoral graduates rose by 10%. Concerning the findings, one can ask if these doctorate/assistant-level female professors climbed the academic ladder. That is, once they were accepted into the academic institutions, did they progress through the ranks to reach associate or full professor rank? This would be an “important measure of progress.”17 Yet studies in the 1990s and at the turn of the century do not show that the imbalance has been rectified. It is a pattern which shows that qualified women are available, yet they are not being absorbed into the academic job market. The executive officer at Laurentian University’s faculty union office (Laurentian University Faculty Association or LUFA), Lee-Anne Fielding, stated (personal communication, November 27, 2009) that women often put their careers on hold after graduate school to have families. As a result, their publishing record suffers and they cannot compete with males who do not carry the responsibility of child bearing. Lack of publication results in lack of promotion, she suggested.

To stress the importance of studying women in academic music, a further look at the years comprising their contemporary status is necessary. That is, from the 1970s to the turn of the century, a 25-year span, the statistics do not reveal a significant improvement. Rosemary Killam’s report (mid to late 1980s), for example, revealed negative developments that correspond with Block’s and Renton’s findings. That is, a greater number of women reported themselves as assistant professors (29%) than associate professors (27%) and full professors (19%).18 Only 7% listed themselves as having administrative rank and duties. Findings as to area were consistent with previous studies: there was an under-representation in brass and percussion.19 Keyboard was the largest field of preference and the second-largest field was voice. This indicates that parents or teachers may choose particularly “feminine” instruments for women. The popular belief in the late 1800s was that any instrument involving a face contortion, an “unlady”-like sitting position, or intense intellectual concentration (as in composing) was not fit for females.20 The piano, for example, would fit this definition of a “woman’s” instrument because her ideal beauty would remain unchanged while playing. Killam’s study also found a discrepancy between the College Music Society report and her own numbers. Where women are listed as full-time in the directory, she found they reported themselves as part-time or adjunct. She suggested that institutions study salary and the academic status of men and women faculty comparatively.21

Killam’s studies show certain positive developments—but they too are overshadowed by contentious issues regarding women’s progress in music academia that raise concern for their status. For example, she found that over half of the women were tenured (51%) and 29% were on tenure-track.22 Also, women faculty voiced strong opinions about their identities as “leaders,” and “intellectuals.” Yet, she questioned the women’s belief that their departments were supportive of them “in light of [their] reported rank and income.”23 She invited readers to inform the University of Texas (where Killam’s conducted her work) of new studies that contribute to understanding the status of women in college music.24 It is obvious that Killam was not convinced that these women in her study had not faced discrimination. This study adds to the evidence that suggests the mid-eighties were still unfriendly to women.

Thus far, it seems clear that the long-standing attitudes regarding women’s being unfit for academic or scientific life are still present. Statistically, women are excluded from the higher levels in rank, fields and administrative leadership. As an illustration, Barbara Payne’s article “The Gender Gap” reveals that women in the 1990s were qualified for tenure-track positions. Over 23% of females earned advanced degrees, (50% of all master’s degrees and 15% of doctoral degrees were women); yet they were still excluded from the upper echelons of university faculties. Drawing on Block’s findings, Payne noted that between 1976 and 1986 only minor improvements occurred in the status of women in music faculties, though qualified women existed to fill those positions. Molly Weaver, adds Payne, noticed that rank and salary according to gender were also spread unequally among the “Big Ten Conference universities,” with only males occupying the ranks of full professor.25 Payne, drawing from Bernice Sander’s work, acknowledges that “it is easy for many to assume that discrimination treatment is no longer a significant problem for women in higher education.”26 However, this desensitization bodes ill; the imbalance (two-thirds male faculty) requires that continued research uncovers inequities in employment, salary and promotion. Payne also noticed that in numerous American institutions, females continue to receive 15% less salary.

Likewise, the fact that women shy away from composition and gravitate to keyboard and voice—as well as music education—speaks to the idea that women still do not identify with intellectual endeavors and remain in female-type-casted fields. That is, 30% of women gravitated to keyboard and 19% to music education.27 Of the six subject areas (Bands, Brass, Choral Groups, Composition, Conducting and Orchestra) full-time females fared poorly in all six areas. To summarize, while American females have made some progress in education since 1972, female employment in college and university music faculties continues to be underrepresented. In 1993-1994 only 33.6% of women held 1993-1994 faculty positions. Yet, Payne concluded that discrimination against women in the academic world as a topic is receiving greater attention than ever before and that in the United States there were increasing efforts to correct gender imbalances deeply rooted in society.28 She also discovered that women held a larger majority of advanced degrees than before.29 Lastly, Payne observed that the academic community might believe that a woman with both family and career responsibilities is subject to “superwoman” stress and burnout. Payne draws on Betty Atterbury who notes that women may expect too much of themselves by pursuing family responsibilities and academic ones. The result is exhaustion, which leads to the male perception that women cannot contend with difficulties in academia involving the necessary long hours for creative and tenure work.30

Payne also disclosed other “micro-inequities” affecting a woman’s academic work environment, such as behaviors that focus on appearance versus her accomplishments; using social terms such as “sweetie,” “dear” or “young lady”; personal life overemphasis; and the assumption that the spouse is the primary contributor.31 She recommended further research to identify underlying causes and successful interventions to reduce the paucity in women’s representation in academic music. She also argued that directories of music faculties should clarify gender as a category for faculty, coupled with research that documents gender inequities and examines the extent to which discrimination plays a role. This is necessary for women’s academic future in music in American post-secondary institutions.32

Finally, the more recent status of women at the turn of the century revealed by the Directory of Music Faculties (2006-2007) and the findings published by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) confirm a lack of significant progress for women in music academia. The reports reveal the absence more than the presence of women in post-secondary institutions where rank, senior administration, and level of education are concerned. The study of the Directory, as Table 2 shows, demonstrates a focus on rank and education in Ontario universities:


 The results of the present study show that at the assistant-professor level the positions are distributed more evenly between females and males than at higher levels. The fact that more males have more degrees and fill the higher ranks means that the proportion of males having these degrees is being absorbed, while the proportion of females with advanced degrees is not. It shows the same pattern noted earlier: men filling senior ranking positions compared to women being left behind. This study reveals also that while men hold more advanced degrees, even without them they still occupy senior positions.

Similarly, the latest report by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (2009-2010) CAUT study also shows that women’s lack of representation in academia should be a matter of concern. In music the total percentage of full-time women is 20%. This is the same level as the total percentage in all subject areas (sciences, social sciences, humanities).33 Yet, the percentage of associate professors in music is less than the total of other subjects: 32.0% associate professors compared to 35.8% associate professors in other subject areas. Again today, gains for women in their representation in music are at the assistant professor level with 46.9% versus 42.9% in other subjects. At the lecturer level, we find the highest majority of women (47.1%); this is lower, however, than the total of other subject areas (52.7%). In all the ranks, the number of women is 34.0% while it is 0.5% higher than in other subjects.  Please see Table 3.


Although the number of female full professors has increased by 5% from 2001, only a small number of full professors in Canadian universities are female (20%). For tenure-track positions, the period 2006/2007 shows a decrease of .9% (from 42.8% in 1996/1997 to 41.9% in 2005/2007). Non-tenure-track employment has skyrocketed from 29.0% in 1986-1987 to 44.6% in 2006/2007 (an increase of 15.6%). As Block suggested, this could bode well for representation if these women stay in academia and become tenured; however, since they are not on the tenure-track system and the period from the 1970s onward has not shown a change in the pattern of women occupying the lower ranks, this is doubtful.

Full-time female university teachers at the tenured level still represent only 29.7% of the total, with men taking 70.3% of the appointments. Of the tenure track positions, women represent 41.9% of the appointments whereas men represent 58.1%. Non-tenure track positions have the most representation of women (44.6%) compared to men (55.4%). Hence, women’s gains in the gender gap are mostly in the non-tenure track system.34 Equality is more apparent in the wage area. According to the CAUT study, in 2007, “women full professors earned 95% of their male counterparts.”35 Another highlight of the study was that the percentage of full-time women university teachers in 2007 improved from 28% in 2001 to 34% in 2007. Statistics indicate that, of the 2,616 new full-time university teacher appointments in Canada, 41% were female. This may mean a greater presence of females on campus, which can be encouraging to female students. What remains to be seen is whether these women will be deflected because of faulty support systems that fail to distinguish gender differences and accommodate them; this may explain why the lower ranks from the mid-1970s, the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s did not move up.

Clearly, the status of women in academic music departments is problematic. Historically, women have been relegated to the home and deprived of learning. Incomplete views of women’s relationship to science and their biological determinism also discouraged women’s intellectual identities. These were among the ideas that prevented women from being appointed to academic positions, as evidenced in Ruby Davy’s being denied academic appointment despite her doctorate in the 1900s. The statistics show that the past still impinges on the present. We know a palpable imbalance exists between the genders today as from the period of the mid-seventies to the turn of the century and today: women are still facing inequity in the senior ranks of academic music.

That women are still not as active as men in music fields such as composition or instruments such as brass raises the issue of whether essentialism, the idea that women are inherently not suited for certain pursuits, is not having a negative impact on women’s musical identities and their career choices. Furthermore, the question must be asked: are women confined to colleges where their teaching loads prevent them from attending to research and creative activities?36 Do institutions still harbor the belief that women are natural teachers/nurturers? Also, are institutions insensitive to gender differences and not accommodating them? Ruth Solie argues that “Members of minorities may find that a neutral rule, applied equally to all, burdens them disproportionately.”37 More than double the academic population in universities is male, whereas the greatest population of females is at the lowest rank. This is disturbing to future generations of female students who may seek guidance from female instructors.

Among many possible recommendations, a few worth considering are that Ministries of Education should include books that dispel the Cinderella myth in elementary education. One such book is Fanny’s Dream, in which a woman’s hard work and not her “prince charming” results in her emancipation. Another book for the junior/intermediate grades should be Anne of Green Gables, here the heroine is a spirited and academically strong young female. At the high school level, recommended reading is The Lives of Charlotte Taylor, a tale of a pioneering woman who establishes a home in Canada on her own. Likewise, music programs need to encourage women to pursue fields such as composition and brass and to pay attention to women musicians and composers. Young girls need to see women in leadership at both the elementary and the secondary level. Schools must promote women leaders, not just in the elementary area, but in the secondary area as well. Universities should give women opportunities as administrators and academics at the post-secondary level. Also, women’s studies must be accepted as a valid research venue. That women become “another statistic” is unacceptable; in reality, developing their intellectual and leadership identities gives women the potential to attain higher ranks, explore different fields and be a part of senior administration.

Robert Darnton, in an interview with Eleanor Wachtel, contends that the internet has democratized learning by allowing greater access to information.38 So too, the Ministry of Education in Ontario has democratized leadership by encouraging women to gain more access to principalships.39 The Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, however, still needs to democratize academic status so that women in music faculties can be promoted. Our institutions need to teach women to live out their intellectual potential by creating change—a change that fosters more representation among women and gives them more visibility at the higher ranks of academic institutions. We need to start these changes early in life, so that female students can enter universities with the right schema that tells them women can be leaders, brass players, conductors, composers and/or academics. This is possible through continued efforts in women’s studies and bringing women’s studies into music teaching. It is possible through a collective effort by educators and policy makers. If Ruby Davies lived today she might have received an academic appointment; change has occurred. Nonetheless, further change is necessary; women still have not yet achieved gender parity in music academia, nor academia in general.


1Block, Women's Studies, 95.
2Aisenberg and Harrington, Women of Academe: Outsiders in the Sacred Grove, 11.
3Renton, The Status of Women in College Music, ix.
4Ibid., x.
5Ibid., 7.
6Ibid., 8.
7Block, Women's Studies, 81.
8Ibid., 82.
9Ibid., 84.
10Ibid., 93.
11Ibid., 87.
12Ibid., 93.
13Ibid., 94.
16Ibid, 95.
17Ibid, 87.
18Killan, "Women in Academic Music," 6.
19Ibid., 12.
20Bowers and Tick, Women Making Music, 327.
21Killam, "Women in Academic Music," 13.
22Ibid., 7.
23Ibid., 12.
24Ibid., 13.
25Payne,"The Gender Gap," 93.
26Ibid., 92.
27Ibid., 96.
28Ibid., 91.
29Ibid., 95.
30Ibid., 100.
32Ibid., 101.
33Canadian Association of University Teachers, CAUT Almanac, 7.
34Ibid., 17.
35Ibid., 5.
36Block, Women's Studies, 93.
37Solie, Musicology and Difference, 10. 

38Darton, "The Case for Books."

39Giguère, “Gender Gap Widening Among Ontario Teachers.”



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Maria Begona

Maria Begoña is a doctoral student at Laurentian University. Among her research interests are feminism, education and language acquisition. Also, she is a K-12 qualified teacher with specialists in religious studies and second language acquisition.

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