Conductor Anna Skryleva doesn’t want to be labeled as a female conductor. She said she’s simply a conductor — who happens to be a woman.
To narrow the gender gap in the orchestra industry, society must stop calling women like her “female conductors,” she said.
In the U.S., only one of the 25 largest orchestras is led by a conductor who is a woman. Internationally, the situation isn’t much better. Germany has many more professional orchestras than the U.S., but has only three general music directors, according to Skryleva.
One of those directors is Skryleva, who works as the music director at Theater Magdeburg. During Halloween weekend, Skryleva will conduct the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra’s performance of “Halloween on Bald Mountain.”
If you go
What: Halloween on Bald Mountain: Mussorgsky, Liszt, and Stravinsky
Where: Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra
Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Sunday at 2 p.m.
Cost: $25 to $99
In 2015, Skryleva participated in the inaugural class of the Dallas Opera’s Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors, which was created to address the gender imbalance of leadership on the podium. The program was founded under the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra’s president and CEO Keith Cerny, who worked as the general director and CEO of the Dallas Opera at the time.
Six years later, the gender imbalance is still perpetuated by people who, inadvertently or not, segregate women by their gender, Skryleva said.
“We have to be careful not to create a special separated cast called ‘female conductors,’ ” she said. “It’s very often that people say ‘conductor’ and then ‘female conductor’ so this is a very, very difficult situation.”
Instead of classifying conductors who are women by their gender, Skryleva said, society and hiring agencies should distinguish them by the same factors as their male counterparts: talent.
The job of a conductor demands much more than what the audience sees during a performance, she said. Successful conductors have to be able to lead and network smoothly. They operate as the face of the orchestra business and at social events and shape the orchestra through their artistic vision.
It’s much more than waving a baton on a podium for a few hours.
Women may face more challenges than men when entering the field for a variety of reasons, including biological factors and societal expectations.
Most often, women consider pursuing a career in conducting between the ages of 20 and 40, Skryleva said. During that age frame, women are often expected to start a family, not a career.
“I know a lot of female colleagues who give up their job because they wanted to build a family,” Skryleva said. “Or, I also know also a lot of great female conductors who don’t have a family or children. To have both is very challenging.”
Part of the job of being a conductor is frequently traveling across cities and even countries, and that constantly moving life doesn’t appeal to many people. Skryleva described herself as “lucky” to be a successful conductor with a supportive husband and 14-year-old daughter.
About Anna Skryleva
From: She was born in Moscow, Russia and is currently living in Berlin, Germany.
Education: She was accepted to the composers’ class at Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Conservatory when was ten years old and later trained as a pianist and chamber musician at the same university. She completed piano studies at the Berlin University of the Arts (Universität der Künste Berlin).
Work experience: She is currently the music director at Theater Magdeburg. She has conducted at various orchestras and operas across the U.S. and Europe.
Starting in 2002, Skryleva had to move every third or fourth year. When her daughter was 2 months old, Skryleva started a new job and had to upend her family’s life. The experience would have been much more difficult if not for the support of her husband, who also worked in the same industry for many years and understood her job’s demands, she said.
When Skryleva started in the field, it was difficult for her to find an agency that was “ready” to work with a female conductor, she said. Twenty years ago, some orchestras still employed exclusively male musicians, and many agencies and orchestras today are still unwilling to work with women simply on the basis of their gender, Skryeva said.
Clifton Evans, director of orchestras and associate professor of music at the University of Texas at Arlington, argued that the lack of lead female conductors isn’t necessarily because of outright discrimination in the industry. Another possible reason for this, he said, is that women were formally trained as conductors with much less frequency in previous generations.
But that’s changing at the beginner level, according to Evans. He cited his own and his acquaintances’ graduate conductor classes, which he said are usually about half full of female students. He said this is likely the case in most conducting studios around the country.
Orchestras were historically led by men because that was simply the expectation and how the industry started, Evans said. Women didn’t realize that the field was open to them as well, and there probably weren’t many women interested in becoming a conductor.
There are a number of fields that are still dominated by men that no one questions, Evans said. Plumbing, for example, is a male-dominated field.
“How many women grow up aspiring to be a plumber and actually become one?” he asked. “Not that many because it tends to be a field that men enter and want to have as their job. Is there discrimination that causes that? Probably not.”
And as more women enter the field, the more like it will be that they can fill leadership roles. All performing arts organizations work to promote the best possible talent, whether that’s singers, musicians or conductors, Skryleva said. It’s important that they look for that talent regardless of gender, but they often fail to do so.
That effort has been a focus of Cerny’s work for years, which led to the foundation of the Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors.
“My goal is to bring the most exciting, inventive talent to work with whatever particular arts organization I’m leading at the time,” he said.
In his work and research for the Institute, he’s both studied and heard from multiple conductors who are women about the issues they face because of their gender.
One issue is a worldwide lack of female role models who women can look up to in the industry. The U.S. isn’t the only country facing gender disparity, he said.
That has changed slightly in recent years, Evans said. He pointed out Marin Alsop, whose tenure as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra ended last month. Alsop made history in 2007 as she became the first female conductor of a major U.S. orchestra ensemble.
“Alsop could be considered a trailblazer in a lot of respects,” Evans said. “I think [she] inspired a lot of women to seek out conducting training.”
This month, conductor Nathalie Stutzmann was named the music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, becoming the second woman to lead a major U.S. orchestra.
Cerny said women also tell him that they feel expected to be “more perfect” than their male colleagues to even be considered by agencies. Some audiences were also more accustomed to seeing male conductors, so seeing women came off as a novelty that would distract from their actual work.
Through efforts such as Cerny’s, it’s become much more common to find conductors who are women, even if they aren’t employed as lead conductors that often, Skryleva said.
“Now, it’s become a kind of trend,” she said. “Almost every agency needs a specific representation of female conductors on their roster because now they can sell them,” she said, citing the growing social movement for gender equality in the workforce and many audience’s desire to see women in leadership.
Despite this, many orchestras have a habit of rehiring or recommissioning conductors who they’ve worked with in the past and came to trust. Those conductors are most often men because men have dominated the industry for so long, Cerny said.
In the next 10 years, Skryleva hopes to see greater change and gender inclusivity. More women are entering the field of conducting than when Skryleva first got started, but it will take years for them to receive the training and experience needed to achieve lead conductor positions.
Top orchestra ensembles generally don’t hire inexperienced conductors who haven’t established themselves in the field by conducting at multiple levels, Skryleva said. They have to make a name for themselves first, and since many young women are only recently exploring conducting, it’ll take time for them to establish their reputations.
For now, one way to help amplify gender-diverse conductors is for orchestras and other music agencies to develop workshops, programs and initiatives that help train and develop broader talent among a wide range of musicians, such as the Hart institute, which she said helped develop her knowledge and skill set and make a name for herself.
It’s just a question of time, Skryleva said. With every equality issue that arises in society, it takes constant pushing at the beginning to eventually create change.
Skryleva’s hope is that the conversation can be steered from gender labels as more women take leadership roles. She said artistic visions are more important than gender identity when it comes to who leads an orchestra.
“Man or woman, it doesn’t matter,” Skryleva said.
Editor’s note: This story was changed on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, to clarify a statement made by Clifton Evans, director of orchestras and associate professor of music at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Fort Worth Report fellow Cecilia Lenzen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.