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Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Females in the Music Room

As we continue our conversation on better inclusion for marginalized people groups in our music rooms, today I want to focus on women and girls. With such a high percentage of females in the teaching profession in general, it is in many ways surprising to think that girls are marginalized in any way in our classrooms, but when we consider the structures and issues of our societies in general it shouldn't come as a surprise at all. In keeping with the theme of this series, today I want to focus on ways in which we can better reflect, respect, and respond to the needs of females in the music room.

First it's important to note that gender is not binary, and there are many students who struggle with the issue of gender identity itself. Although that topic is beyond the scope of this post, I do not want us to ignore the struggles or needs of those students as we focus on females today. As we reflect on how to better reach and teach all of our students, it's important to avoid limiting ourselves to binary gender identities.

To help me tackle this topic, I reached out to fellow music teacher Michelle Warshany from Music with Miss W. She has been talking about the need for better female representation in music education for a while now and she has some excellent thoughts, ideas, and resources to share! Here is the conversation we had:

1. What are some of the specific areas where you have noticed lack of female representation in music education, whether as a student or as a teacher?

As a student, I started playing flute in 5th grade but did not play any music written by a female composer until I was in college. I did not meet a female high school band director until my junior year of college. As a student teacher, I attended a meeting with my co-operating teacher for all of the high school band directors in the district. I was the only female there. This summer I took an advanced conducting course as part of my masters and there was not a single female conductor featured as an example of great conducting in the entire course. 

As a teacher, I encountered a huge lack of female representation at the high school band level and at the secondary level in general. I have also encountered quite a bit of sexism and I know I am not alone. The Good Ol' Boys Club definitely still exists in many places, especially in the band world. Do a quick search of "sexism" in any band director Facebook group and you'll find many stories.

As a teacher, I have also noticed many band programs don't program any music written by female composers. It's not even just an issue at the K-12 level. Of the 1,445 classical concerts performed by orchestras, only 5% of the concerts include at least one piece of music written by a female composer. Most often, I see teachers rarely displaying female composers in their "composer of the month" series. If there are female composers, conductors, and musicians displayed or used, they are most often white women and very rarely feature BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color).

2. Besides representation, what are other ways in which females are underprivileged in music classrooms (of any types/ grade levels)? 

Females often face more challenges as leaders. Check out this interview that talks about some of the challenges women face, "for example the ‘master stereotype’ that men have emotion while women are emotional." It is important to recognize that female leaders face unique challenges. This is something to be mindful of, especially if you have female students who are drum majors, section leaders, etc. 

In the same vein of leadership, girls may be less likely pursue leadership positions, despite the fact that research finds girls are just as predisposed to be leaders as boys. If you see leadership potential in female students, be aware they made need a little extra encouragement and be sure to expose them to female leader role models.

If you have self evaluation/reflection on their playing/singing as a part of grading, be aware that female students may often rate themselves lower than their actual performance level. For example, this study found "when self-ratings are examined, men rate themselves as significantly more effective than women rate themselves."

3. What are some specific ways for music teachers to make sure there is more female representation in their lesson content, repertoire, classrooms, materials, etc?

First, I suggest looking at the small things. If you're showing a video of someone playing an instrument, can you find a video that features a female musician? If you have bulletin boards or displays, can you add more females (be sure that they are inclusive of BIPOC)?

Be intentional about the music you program and make a goal to program at least one piece composed by a female composer each year. The composer diversity project has done an AWESOME job of collecting tons of female composers and putting them all in one database.

Don't be afraid to call out or talk about something that a male musician, composer, or conductor did. Russell Simmons is featured in my high school general music curriculum. Instead of side stepping the issue of the rape allegations, I talked about #metoo and gave resources for victims of sexual assault. It is okay to call out something that is wrong. Students need to know what is wrong.

Male teachers/directors - speak up when you see something or hear something.

Take a look at who you follow on social media. Are you listening and learning from voices who are different than your own?

4. What are some specific ways for music teachers to better respect and foster female students and their values in their classes?

Make female representation a normal part of your classroom. Featuring female composers, conductors, and musicians during women's history month is simply not enough. Students need to see themselves regularly in class. If you want to read more on why this important, you can check out this post.

Bring in female guest conductors so students can see other females leading ensembles. Support your female student teachers and talk about the specific challenges they may face. Encourage your female student leaders and be on the lookout for any sexism that may happen.

5. What resources would you suggest for music teachers who want to better represent females in their classes?
If you're looking for grade 3 and below pieces for band and orchestra, check out Yukiko Nishimura.
You can also check out my Instagram highlights - I have a few featuring female composers and conductors.

Points to Consider

Reflect: Finding ways to better reflect females in our classrooms goes beyond including Clara Schumann in our music history lessons! We need to include music written by female composers in the repertoire we use, show examples of female composers, conductors, performers, and other musicians in our posters, visuals, and video examples, and make sure students have opportunities to interact with female leaders in music, whether they're guest conductors, visiting artists, teaching colleagues, or other musicians from the community.

Respond: It's important to take into account the specific ways that female students handle self-evaluation compared to their male peers. We also need to be conscious of the barriers to leadership that our female students often encounter, and provide them with the support and role models they need to take on leadership roles in our classrooms.

Respect: We can't ignore the specific challenges that girls face in taking on leadership in our classrooms. It's important to encourage female students to take on leadership roles and be aware of (and counteract) any sexism they may encounter when they do. And when we talk about people, events, and ideas that are disrespectful of females in some way, it's important not to ignore the issue but to address it (in an age-appropriate way) with our students. We can also model respect as teachers ourselves, whether male or female.

I hope you found some thought-provoking ideas and resources to help you better reflect, respect, and respond to female students in your classroom! I have to thank Michelle for sharing her thoughts with us. If you want to hear more from her, you can find her on Instagram, Facebook, TeachersPayTeachers, and on her website.

If you haven't yet, I encourage you to read through the introductory post for this series on making room for every student in our classrooms. I hope you'll take some time to read my thoughts on ways to better teach other marginalized people and perspectives in my other posts in this series as well.


  1. Actually it is a fact of biology that gender is binary?

    1. Hi Andrea! As I mentioned this specific topic is beyond the scope of this particular post, so I don't want to get too far off-topic here. I am very much still learning in this area myself, but I think the confusion is in the definition of the term "gender", which is not the same as "sex". As I understand it, what you're thinking of is a person's sex, and what I'm talking about is a person's gender, which can be different things. I encourage you to do some research on the different terms- it can definitely be a confusing topic because of all of the new terminology but as I said it is also an important one to learn about since there are many for whom this is a significant struggle!

  2. Incredible article, thank you so much!

  3. I always find commentary on this topic interesting. I come from a long line of strong women who are leaders, so it comes naturally to me to see females in my classroom in that light, and to naturally encourage such qualities. My dad always said,"You can do anything you put your mind to," and that goes for anyone, regardless of minority/discriminated against/marginalized group. While I think recognizing and working against discrimination in any form is very important, I think the perspective of treating everyone with respect and dignity is a more positive one, and one less likely to perpetuate victimhood. Truly, anyone can do anything with themselves and their lives if they have a mind to do so (think of Ben Carson as an example). I think I've been fortunate to have lived among strong women (and men) in my life, who have demonstrated that strength is in respect and dignity. Just my two cents...

    1. I agree that treating everyone with respect is of utmost importance- if you look back through this post and the ones that precede it I think you'll see that as a primary theme. However I also think it is important to acknowledge the societal structures that disadvantage certain people groups and perspectives and work consciously to dismantle and counteract them. Just because some are able to overcome an obstacle does not mean the obstacle does not exist or that the obstacle is not something with which to concern ourselves. There are many more examples of people who have demonstrated incredible tenacity, strength, respect, and dignity throughout their lives but were never afforded access to the same privileges and opportunities that others from different life circumstances had handed to them through far less effort.