Why men won't pass the baton

A new report reveals the male domination of Spanish orchestras

Is there a glass ceiling for female musicians in Spain? The proportion of women in the 27 state-funded symphony orchestras is 32 percent, less than the 41 percent of women who obtain a higher degree in music - and 10 points less than a decade ago. None of the principal conductors of these ensembles is female.

The glass-ceiling theory is supported by a study called Género sinfónico. La participación de las mujeres en las orquestas profesionales españolas (or, Symphonic genre: women's participation in Spanish professional orchestras), carried out by a team from the Political Science and Sociology School at the Complutense University in Madrid.

Study director Javier Noya and the musician and researcher María Setuain Belzunegui took a look at the 2,000 members of the philharmonics that make up the Spanish Association of Symphony Orchestras, and concluded that Spain is 20 years behind Germany and Britain in terms of gender equality.

At the national level, there are significant differences between the regions. Only the symphony orchestras of Oviedo and Santiago have a 40-percent or higher female presence. "We didn't know that we had the greatest parity, but that's good news," says María Riera, the manager of Oviedo Filarmonía. "Perhaps it's because we are a young ensemble, and women are increasingly well prepared. At auditions there are growing numbers of female candidates."

The worst performer in this respect, with a female ratio of less than 25 percent, is the Orquesta Nacional de España (ONE), which is overseen by the Culture Ministry. "I never witnessed gender-based discrimination there," says Félix Palomero, director general of the INAEM, the ministry agency in charge of the orchestra and himself the manager of ONE for six years. "Thirty-five percent of spots open since 2005 have been taken by women."

Instead, Palomero blames the difference on "historical, inherited staff structures," and says that the advance of female musicians is just a matter of time.

But the study concludes that "female participation is lower on the more prestigious stages, such as Madrid, Catalonia and the Basque Country" and that "in competition for the toughest positions in the most prestigious orchestras, women always lose out, which indicates the presence of a sexist bias."

Researchers also point to the underlying cause of this bias. "The reason for the discrimination against women is not social, it is musical: it lies in the conservatism of the symphonic genre." What's more, the instruments still have sexual connotations carried over from the past, says Noya. "Up until the 20th century it was frowned upon for women to play the cello because you place it between your legs," he explains. All the large instruments - save for the harp and the pianos, which are salon instruments - "are reserved for male performers."

Besides size, timbre also matters. "Bass sounds are associated with masculinity while high ones are linked to femininity," the study says. That is perhaps why the string section of an orchestra always has the highest number of female musicians. "One out of every two women at Spanish orchestras is a violinist," the report says.

The study proposes "blind" auditions that would conceal the candidate's gender. "That would increase the chances of hiring a woman by 50 percent," says Noya, who bases this statement on a US study.

There are other ways to get around the glass ceiling. Isabel López Calzada, a conductor with five musical degrees and a master's degree in musical management, decided to create her own philharmonic in 2004, the Women's Symphony Orchestra of Madrid. The goal was to play forgotten work by female composers, performed by women musicians. López Calzada says she received "an avalanche of résumés" and was surprised to see many candidates specializing in percussion and brass instruments - traditionally male territories.

This conductor, who leads a 70-member philharmonic, sees no good reason for the shortage of women at symphony orchestras, although she rejects solutions like blind auditions. "It's important to see the movement and expression of the performers," she says.

Inma Shara (real name Inmaculada Sarachaga), 38, is one of Spain's few female conductors, and she knows for a fact that some musicians are loathe to take orders from a woman waving a baton.

"But in a matter of minutes they stop seeing a woman or a man. You are just a tool for the music," she said in a 2007 interview. Yet a conductor is also a leader, a representative of power - exactly what women have lacked for centuries, and the reason why it has taken them so long to reach the podium.

At first Shara remembers feeling panicked. "But as soon as you are up there on the podium, you only think about the music," she said. "You never feel completely confident, but no matter how shy you might be in your day-to-day life, the music hypnotizes you to such a great extent that you even lose part of your sense of reason."