“Woman (music) composer” is even more rare than “women programmer”

August 15, 2013 at 1:01 am 8 comments

In September, I’m going to Dagstuhl for a workshop on “Collaboration and Learning through Livecoding.”  It’s mostly people who “livecode” in the musical sense and put on “AlgoRaves“, but will also include people who talk about “livecoding” in the CS education sense.  I’m really looking forward to it.

But I was surprised when I looked at the list of attendees: There is only one woman that I can identify by name.  I figured that music would be a more welcoming community than computer science, so there would be lots of women coming to livecoding from the music side.  I asked my colleague, Jason Freeman, in GT’s School of Music, who told me that music composition is even more male than computer science!  He told me about the NYTimes piece (linked below) that talks about the severe gender disparity in music composition.  Jason said that GT’s Masters in Music Technology program has had 60-70 graduates so far — and only six women cumulatively (across all years).

Why is that?  What’s common about music composition and computer programming that both careers would have so few women, when fields like medicine, law, and veterinary science used to be male-dominated but are now more gender-balanced?

Kirsten acknowledged that women have had an agonizingly difficult time gaining a creative foothold in classical music, whose repertory is male-dominated to a stifling degree. But, in light of the international renown of such figures as Kaija Saariaho, Unsuk Chin, and Sofia Gubaidulina, she argued that the “woman composer” no longer required special pleading or affirmative action. “Neither art nor artist is served by segregation—even if it’s well intended,” Kirsten wrote. Rather than going out of their way to boost female composers, she suggested, programmers should embrace only works that speak to them strongly, trusting that women will continue to advance.

via Alex Ross: Female Composers Edge Forward : The New Yorker.

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Experiences with Media Computation at U. Adelaide Computer Scientists: do outreach or your science dies

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. yaxu  |  August 15, 2013 at 2:45 am

    Hi Mark,

    You missed a couple — there are currently three women on the Dagstuhl seminar participant list, but of course this is still a low percentage. The percentage of female invitees originally invited was far higher, but only five accepted and two women dropped out last week.

    I suspect the format of the event, particularly commitment for a full week, is one factor. Both female and male participants have struggled with childcare issues, and I think this is still a greater issue for women on average.

    However, it is true that gender balance in computer music, which has been the main context for live coding, is dire in general. It does seem that it is not really the technology that’s the problem, it’s the music. I’ve found it is possible to achieve gender balance in performance technology conferences, by having a remit which includes choreographers, dancers and performance artists. When things are constrained to music though, things somehow get more difficult.

    There are encouraging signs though. For example, in Mexico City the vibrant local live coding community seems far more balanced, I guess because they started from scratch, through a strong programme of community workshops. I went to a festival there which had a healthy gender balance, and it felt very much like the future.

  • 2. alexruthmann  |  August 15, 2013 at 11:51 am

    I echo Alex’s comments. When I was on sabbatical at the Queensland Conservatorium in Brisbane, Australia in 2012, they had almost gender parity within their Bachelor of Music Technology degree program. I’m not sure what might be different there, but it came up in conversation often.

  • 3. Keith  |  August 15, 2013 at 1:52 pm

    I think it is right to ask why women aren’t picking particular careers in contrast to asking why women aren’t interested in disciplines, e.g., composing music or CS. Careers are as much a product of culture as intellectual content and there lies the problem. The intellectual content of Law hasn’t changed much in 100 years, yet the gender balance has changed significantly. But what about mathematics, music composition, physics, computing etc.? Mathematics is a great example that has near gender parity at the undergraduate level but loses that parity at the graduate/professional level. Culture, not content.

    One (not particularly novel) hypothesis: Medicine & Law had nursing and clerking positions that women have filled for a while (and these jobs haven’t gone away). So when women started entering the work-force at full strength, there were channels, role models, allies etc. for advancing in those areas. Physics and CS not so much. Of course there were clerical positions in those fields, and many of the early coders were women, but much of that work dried up (ironically enough) with the automation that CS ushered in.

  • 4. uebergeek  |  August 19, 2013 at 12:01 am

    One criteria that’s used to evaluate faculty gender equity at the uni where I teach is terminal degrees vs. faculty hires. For example, if 50% of terminal degree holders in Discipline X are women, but in the university’s Discipline X department only 30% of faculty are women, it might be time to think about the hiring process. But if only 30% of terminal degree holders are women, that suggests that perhaps the field is not attracting women, or that women are entering the field but for some reason not continuing to the terminal degree level. Of course, terminal degrees aren’t appropriate for every career path, and people may follow any number of paths to arrive at the same terminal degree or professional position. But presumably the model could be adapted to figure out at which points in various professional trajectories the gender balance seems to shift – and then try to figure out why that’s happening.

    -Amy Alexander aka uebergeek

  • 5. yaxu  |  August 29, 2013 at 3:40 am

    FWIW, we now have five women signed up for the seminar. Still only 20%, though.

    • 6. Mark Guzdial  |  August 29, 2013 at 2:56 pm

      Good to hear! I’ve now got EarSketch installed and have received training from Jason on how to demo it, so I can show that (as a proxy for Jason and Brian) at the seminar, too.

  • […] the result, and that they can see a path to do more.  I’m writing this while immersed in the Livecoding seminar at Dagstuhl, and I realize that this is a role for livecoding — showing students that they can make […]

  • […] posted my trip report on the Dagstuhl Seminar on Live Coding on Blog@CACM (see the post here).  If you don’t want to read the post, check out this video […]


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