Saskatchewan-born Janna Sailor is earning a reputation as one of the most promising and gifted conductors in Canada. But for the violinist turned conductor, there’s one aspect of her career that she sometimes tires of discussing: her gender. In media interviews, she’s often asked what it’s like conducting “as a woman.” In auditions, she’s been asked if she’s planning to have a baby, the query followed by a warning about the effects of maternity leaves on career prospects: “Everything will be wasted if you’re just gonna have a baby.” The message seemed clear: Conducting is a man’s job.
But for Sailor, nothing could be further from the truth.
Gender parity is slowly creeping through the arts, but progress appears especially slow in the world of classical music. Of the nearly 50 professional symphonies, orchestras and opera companies in Canada, only five currently have women as principal conductors.
“Classical music is 300 years behind the modern world,” says Sailor, who has conducted major orchestras including the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and the Calgary Philharmonic, but despite being a finalist in three competitions has yet to secure tenure as a principal conductor. (She’s currently being courted by European orchestras, where her gender doesn’t appear to be such a pressing issue. “I don’t know why it’s such a hard sell in North American orchestras … I just don’t.”)
Video: Janna Sailor conducts Vancouver’s Allegra Chamber Orchestra featuring soloist/composer Hoang Bic performing “Dance in a Dream”
Aspiring female conductors can be reluctant to publicly discuss the issue of a glass ceiling, but the challenges many face as they try to break through became clear at a pioneering conference in Halifax last month.
Talk at the Women’s Conducting Institute (Aug. 8-10) ranged from gender stereotypes and classical music tradition (Google the word “conductor” and see how long it takes to find a woman) to clothing choices and the meaning of the word “demand.” At one of the sessions, led by Pittsburgh-based conductor and conference organizer Caron Daley, participants were asked to describe what conductors were like in the 19th century. “Authoritarian,” said one woman. “Grandiose…”
“Ego!” someone shouted. There was a quiet moment as everyone considered the question. Then someone threw in one more suggestion: “Male.”
At the front of the room, Daley gestured to her outfit: a floral print jungle green jumpsuit.
“This,” she said, “would get comments.”
There was a shared groan across the room. Whether for rehearsals or performances, the dozen or so conference participants said they’ve lost time overthinking what to wear, not because of vanity, but because of the distracting inevitability of commentary. One said she always wears long, muted dresses. At least that way there are fewer reactions, she said.
Daley, who directs the Voices of Spirit, Pappert Women’s Chorale and University Singers choirs, says she decided to organize the conference after having a baby in 2018. She’d established the Halifax Choral Conducting Institute, an annual educational workshop and conference, but motherhood left her contemplating the competing demands of parenthood and careers – and the pressures that women in particular face in the world of classical music. She saw a need for a conference for female conductors such as herself, and decided to start the Women’s Conducting Institute.
For its inaugural gathering, she focused on choral conductors (the conference participants direct choirs of professional singers, some leading entire church musical programs, others conducting quintets or children’s choirs).
In another one of the conference sessions, the women discussed the lack of female role models and mentors. Daley recalled leafing through complex orchestral scores as a music student and being drawn to the idea of conducting, but feeling uncertain that her dream was achievable.
“Is this even a possibility?” she’d ask herself, despite coming from a family with an impressive musical pedigree (two of her grandparents attended the Juilliard School, and her mother was a music educator). “I didn’t even know how to become a conductor.”
Video: Caron Daley conducts the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir performing Allelujah
When she finally decided to study choral conducting at Ohio State University, she immediately connected with one of her instructors, Hilary Apfelstadt, an established conductor who has worked with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and run masters programs in the United States and Canada.
The two women were both from Nova Scotia, and equally passionate about the art of leading vocalists to sing as a single, unified voice – and Apfelstadt understood the challenges that female conductors face in classical music. At the age of 25, a male colleague had told her, “That was really good! You don’t conduct like a woman.”
“I was stunned,” recalls Apfelstadt, who attended the Halifax conference as a mentor. “Ten years later, I could’ve given him quite the comeback. But at the time, I didn’t know what to say.”
Similar versions of the same insult-meant-as-compliment followed her throughout her career, from the podium to the classroom.
“You’re pretty good,” an administrator once told her during an audition, “for a woman.”
There’s a running narrative, several conference participants said, that female conductors pale in comparison – in physicality and intensity – to men. Another enduring myth cited: that men are strong, and women are weak, men are intelligent and women are simple minded.
But in interviews, arts administrators identify other factors to account for gender disparity at the podium.
“Some of it comes down to the mathematics of what the pipeline is,” says Matthew Loden, chief executive officer of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. “The numbers are often against us.
“My job is to find the very best conductors that I can put on the podium with our musicians. There’s only a handful of people who happen to be women.”
Loden says there’s an increasing demand for female conductors, and estimates that there are likely only 20 on an “international level with symphonies around the world,” and by the time orchestras such as his seek them out, they’re already booked.
While he says he supports the idea of change, he says it “can’t happen overnight.”
Part of the problem is that most orchestras like to give conductors time to grow in their role, so many remain for a decade or more. As a result, new opportunities don’t open up as often as many female candidates might hope. Given the limited number of positions, women are often hired as visiting or guest conductors, but they find it harder to secure a permanent position.
“For us … we do understand that the time has come ...” says Trudy Schroeder, executive director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, but she cautions, “it takes a really long time to develop conductors.”
Schroeder says it isn’t like learning the tuba, where you can practice your craft at home.
“If you want to become a conductor, you have to have access to an orchestra. You have to actually have experience conducting a live orchestra.”
Without this access, she explains, it’s nearly impossible for women to ascend. “Truly, it is a field, like certain fields in engineering, or race car driving, where the glass ceiling is stronger and tighter. Why is that?” she asks, then immediately answers her own question, “I don’t know that I could say.”
Sailor says the key is winning apprenticeship roles, either as an assistant to the principal conductor or working directly alongside them in another capacity.
“This is a glass ceiling – we’ve finally gotten up to it, and now we’re trying to smash through.”
Some arts institutions are working to level the playing field. At the Royal Philharmonic Society in London, conductor Alice Farnham is leading courses specifically for women conducting opera. (There is only one female principal conductor leading an orchestra in the United Kingdom, and only 22 of 371 conductors represented by British agents are women.) In the United States, the Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors began offering residencies in Texas four years ago. They aim to elevate “talented female conductors” by placing them directly within the Dallas Opera, working with established professionals.
Many orchestras have also taken steps to ensure that gender bias doesn’t creep in when they hire instrumentalists. Auditions often take place now behind a curtain, to prevent hiring committees from being blinded by unconscious discrimination. (Although the figures rise and fall from year to year, most symphonies now hover around gender parity.)
But blind auditions don’t work for conducting because the role itself is rooted in physicality and visual engagement with the musicians. “Conducting is about being embodied, embodying the essence of who you are,” Sailor says, adding that some women struggle with “how to be a woman and take on your own power.”
In a session on the second day of the Halifax conference, the participants found themselves discussing the most appropriate language to use when speaking to musicians – and considering the implications of the word “demand.”
“That word is loaded,” one participant said.
“I think there is still the myth that if a man is in a position of power, he’s just assertive,” another added. “If a woman is in a position of power, she got there because she’s a bitch.”
The conversation turned to ways to frame requests constructively. Instead of specifically making a demand, Daley suggested, try telling musicians this: “It’s not me asking you … it’s Mozart.”