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Music

The gender equality struggle is real, even in the ‘liberal and lovely’ arts

A pair of upcoming events offer a timely reminder that the fight for female equality remains – even within the supposedly progressive classical music and arts world.

The fight for equality, humanity and fairness in society is an ongoing struggle that relies on the energy and drive of determined individuals and organisations, as this publication attests. While the topic of gender equality is championed tirelessly across the world by a great number of thinkers and activists, its appearance in the popular press is a more recent phenomenon. This shift has been influenced by the Weinstein scandal and the ensuing #metoo revelations, Carrie Gracie’s expose on the BBC’s allegedly unequal pay for male and female journalists, and a general sense of discussions coming to a head.

Southbank Centre’s Women Of The World festival is now international in scale, with events held in Hong Kong, Australia, Iceland and Egypt, as well as in the UK (the eighth London edition takes place March 7-11). The festival regularly includes a ‘Women in the creative industries day’, where artists, writers, politicians, comedians and business leaders can explore ways to make workplaces more inclusive (this year’s event will be held on March 7). In the past, when I have mentioned my attendance, friends have expressed surprise that such a conference need exist at all. “But you work in the arts”, they say, with bewilderment, “isn’t it all very liberal and lovely there?”

Women composers – or composers, as I prefer to call them – are still under-programmed; female soloists are often expected to dress in a certain way, and on it goes

Yes, many aspects are wonderfully forward-thinking. However, the arts – and within it, the classical music world – are microcosms within macrocosms, and they reflect lots of the same prejudices held in the rest of society. Women conductors, for example, are still treated as something of a curiosity. Only a few months ago, there was another instance of a high-profile male conductor questioning whether female counterparts were up to the job. (Latvian maestro Mariss Jansons reportedly said that, despite understanding that things had to change, women conductors were not his “cup of tea”). We hoped that the Vasily Petrenko scandal – when the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic chief conductor told an interviewer that female conductors risked distracting musicians – and the outrage that followed had knocked that antiquated idea on the head. Women composers – or composers, as I prefer to call them – are still under-programmed; female soloists are often expected to dress in a certain way, and on it goes. When I was editor of a classical music magazine, I often received requests to speak to the (male) publisher about magazine queries, despite assurances that I was in charge of commissioning decisions.

This year commemorates the 100th anniversary since some women got the vote in the UK. The BBC has commissioned a new choral work, The Pankhurst Anthem, to mark the occasion. The piece was created by descendants of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, with music by Lucy Pankhurst and words by Helen Pankhurst, based on Emmeline’s original speeches. BBC Radio 3 is inviting choirs around the country to learn and perform this brand new choral work during 2018. A recording featuring the BBC Singers conducted by Hilary Campbell, plus free sheet music for several arrangements, is available via the Radio 3 website. The first live broadcast of The Pankhurst Anthem will be on March 9, when Voices of Hope choir perform it live at Sage Gateshead as part of BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking Festival.

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