Words by Susanna Eastburn MBE
Every year since 2016, Sound and Music has marked International Women’s Day and the month of March by using it as a springboard to showcase the work and lives of ground-breaking, inspiring and significant composers past and present across our programmes, websites and in our communications. These composers are women (we’ve had an interesting discussion internally about our dislike of the terms “women composers” and “female composers”) — some famous, some neglected by history, all worthy of interest and with music that deserves attention.
We’ve also used it as an annual occasion to hold ourselves to account publicly with regards to our own progress in this area and to reflect on the wider industry’s engagement with the need for positive and sustainable change in this regard.
In 2017, we were the first organisation to make a commitment: 50:50 by 2020. We said then that by 2020, at least 50% of the composers we were working with would identify as women. I remember at the time saying with confidence that I expected us to reach that target before 2020.
Since then, many other organisations have made similar pledges, notably via the wonderful international Keychange initiative led by the PRS Foundation, to which Sound and Music is a signatory. You would think that would have hastened both our, and the industry’s, progress to equal gender representation (and a time when targets, and the positive action needed to attain them, are no longer necessary).
And to some extent it has. Sound and Music has made good, measurable progress. However, I have been proved wrong in my confident assertion. We are not yet at 50%. We have gone from women being 26% applicants / 33% selected in 2016–17, to, this year so far, 37% applicants / 42% selected. At the current rate, we will fulfil our commitment by 2022.
It is worth noting that the progress we have made has only been possible by sustained focus and embedding this work, ensuring that we are foregrounding composers who happen to be women, their music and voices, in everything we do. And, of course, through our annual International Women’s Day campaign and wider work with the industry.
This gives us pause for thought. We know from that applications from women — and indeed Black, Asian and ethnically diverse and/or disabled people — disproportionately decrease at every key career transition phase. Put another way, composers from those backgrounds are more likely to face one or more insurmountable barriers at every stage on their path to achieving their goals. Whether these barriers are perceived (because of entrenched beliefs about who our industry chooses to favour, at least some of which are true at least some of time) or actual, we must address them.
With this in mind, we have for some time been working, with others in the sector and with our Composer Advisory Group, on developing a set of national Fair Access Principles which we launched in February 2020.
These principles are designed to help organisations who run competitive recruitment and selection processes for composers to address these ongoing barriers to access. They aim to remove barriers that don’t relate to your talent, but to your background. Your financial situation. Your age. Where you live. Where you studied. Whether you are disabled. Whether you have children or caring responsibilities.
None of these factors have anything to do with whether you are a good composer or not; but these barriers can and do prevent composers from accessing the opportunities they need to develop as artists.
Sound and Music’s Fair Access Principles have also begun to take us into a less binary, more intersectional approach to addressing the lack of representation in our work and in the industry. As a woman, yes, I have experienced and seen sexism (which I define as: treating somebody differently and with less respect on the basis of their gender) more times than I care to think. But as a white, middle-class, cisgender heterosexual woman with a university education, I need to remember that I am in one of the most privileged demographics of our society.
The real truth behind Sound and Music’s pioneering work towards gender equality is that it has also opened our eyes to the barriers to diversity more broadly, and this is something we will continue to explore. We will keep reporting on our progress to gender equality. And as we begin this new decade, our focus will be on putting these Principles into practice, re-examining our work and looking at the partnerships, resources and approaches that this will require.
However, Sound and Music’s commitment to the Fair Access Principles will not be enough in ensuring that our new music sector supports a diverse range of talent to thrive — a diversity we need for the future of music, our national cultural life and our musical legacy.
So, we ask our friends and colleagues across the sector to join us because we can’t do this alone. Please sign up to the Fair Access Principles. Join us in ensuring a fair and flourishing future for new music. Together we can make a difference to the lives of so many composers of all backgrounds, and be part of the change we want to see across the industry, the arts, and society.