3 Ways to Make Your Orchestra More Gender Inclusive

by Aiden K. Feltkamp

American Composers Orchestra, photo credit: Noah Stern Weber

According to a study by The League of American Orchestras, 47.4% of professional orchestral musicians were women in 2014. This is fantastic news for gender equity in the classical music world. But with sexual harassment allegations finally at the forefront, the importance of inclusion, in addition to diversity, is solidly on the table. How can we begin to change our orchestral environments to help musicians of all genders feel welcome, safe, and respected in their workplace? I’ve included three elements that can be incorporated immediately to begin to build an inclusive and productive environment for all.

1. Create a safe space for all by enforcing a Zero Tolerance Policy on sexual harassment

On the most basic level, you should be sure to include the Zero Tolerance Policy not only in the general company policy, but as a clause in every contract you write. Since orchestras are constantly hiring guest artists (conductors, soloists, etc), this becomes supremely important.

The second step is to be sure that everyone is aware of the policy, the process for reporting an incident, and the procedure following when a report is filed. The consequences for breaking the policy must be clear, specific, and consistent. Zero Tolerance Policies only work if the follow through on these consequences is swift, documented, and made known to your musicians through internal communications. Writers for the Boston Globe describe it this way: “A true zero-tolerance policy requires not only good intentions, but also a trustworthy, independent system, staffed with the proper skills to conduct swift, full, and fair investigations and to carry them to a just resolution, observing principles of confidentiality and discretion, and including ongoing protection of those who report.”

Another great way to change company culture is to provide bystander training for your musicians. In this way, everyone is involved in creating and maintaining a safe workplace; when everyone is educated and responsible, the attitudes toward sexual harassment change and this causes the crucial cultural shift.

You can find some industry-specific information at Opera America’s Anti-Harassment Resources for Organizations and more general information at RAINN’s website.

2. Incorporate gender pronouns

Gender pronouns are exactly what you think they are: they’re the words we use to describe our gender in everyday conversation. The most common are he/him, she/her, and they/them, but there are others.

It’s slowly becoming common practice to include them by default. It may seem redundant or unnecessary, but this practice creates a more inclusive environment for transgender and gender non-conforming artists. You may not have these genders represented yet in your organization, but if you start this practice now, you’ll be ready for when you do. Also, if your orchestra is cognizant and proactive in this way, it will attract more diverse gender identities to your organization. An inclusive environment invites diversity.

Where are the best places to incorporate gender pronouns? Internal communication is the best place to start. This includes email signatures, applications, contracts, and other internal documentation.

3. Diversify your decision makers for artistic programming, audition panels, development, and outreach

Inclusion begins at the top. The next time you’re in a meeting, look around the room. Who are the people making the decisions for your orchestra? Are there only men? Is there only one woman at the table? Are there any trans or gender non-conforming people on your team?

Leadership speaks volumes to your current and prospective musicians. Artists are more likely to feel at ease and included if they see others like themselves at the top. If you don’t currently have a diverse group at the table, consider bringing in consultants and, when it comes time to hire, think outside your usual circle. Take that extra effort to reach a little bit further and bring in those with talents and attributes that are different from your own.

A diverse team will not only help with inclusion, but it has proved to lead to a better company in the long run. Katherine Phillips, a Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School, writes in Scientific American: “Decades of research by organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers show that socially diverse groups (that is, those with a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation) are more innovative than homogeneous groups.”

Implementing these ideas will help, but real change can only come through active and deliberate steps to change the industry’s culture. And this starts with your orchestra. You can begin to create an environment that’s inclusive of all genders. Not only will this help with retention and overall musician happiness, but it will draw in more diverse artists and audience members.

As the inclusivity advocate Anita Hill so eloquently puts it, “Yes, we want women to lean in, but on the other hand, we also want to assure them that there is a system where it’s going to be worth their effort if they lean in.”