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Behind the Scenes, Behind the Screens

by Lisa Frattare and Meg Urry

January 1999

Sometimes the situation of women in astronomy can be illuminated by fields well outside academia. For example, top professional orchestras have long excluded women, but in recent years out-of-date prejudice has been overcome by novel audition strategies.

Apparently it is no secret that some famous male musicians doubt the abilities of their female colleagues. In a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, entitled “Orchestrating Impartiality: the Impact of ‘Blind’ Auditions on Female Musicians,” authors and economists Claudia Goldin of Harvard and Cecelia Rouse of Princeton document the low numbers of women in major orchestras and describe in vivid detail the common biases of male conductors against female performers.

The conductors expressed their opinions unapologetically and mostly anonymously, saying, “The more women, the poorer the sound,” and “Women have smaller techniques than men,” and “Women are more temperamental than men and more likely to demand special attention.” Famous New York Philharmonic conductor Zubin Mehta was quoted as saying, without explanation, “I just don’t think women should be in an orchestra.”

Part cause, part effect, is that women are rare in the upper echelons of the classical music profession. As recently as 1980, the premiere “Big Five” musical ensembles — the Boston Symphony, Chicago
Symphony, Cleveland Symphony, New York Philharmonic, and Philadelphia Orchestra — had only 10% women musicians even though the pool of well-qualified graduates from places like New York’s Juilliard School of Music included 45% women.

At about this same time, the Musician’s Union began pushing a new hiring strategy. Not only was there a movement away from the“inside-track” and “old boy network” and toward open auditions, but also to a new audition format, the “blind audition.” Musicians either played behind a screen or the reviewers
themselves sat behind such dividers. Audition areas were also carpeted and/or women musicians
were asked to remove their shoes so that an escorting personnel manager could make male-sounding footsteps. These changes ensured that musicians were judged on sound, not gender.

The practice of blind auditions was sometimes done only in initial auditions, not necessarily in second or third auditions, yet the changes were still immediate and strikingly favorable to women. Even the New York Philharmonic, with Zubin Mehta at its head, hired women for an incredible 45% of new positions once blind auditions were instituted.

As with any dramatic reduction in bias, many factors are at work. Elizabeth Woodside, violinist for the Cleveland Orchestra, describes her role as one of 23 women in the 105-member highly competitive orchestra, which does not participate in blind auditions. She points out that besides variations in the numbers of women from orchestra to orchestra, there is also a definite gender distinction in choice of instrument. String sections are heavily dominated by women, whereas brass and percussion sections consist mainly of men. These inequalities may result not from biased hiring practices but from earlier, more subtle effects of initial training or pressure from parents or peers, steering girls and boys toward different instruments.

The world of astronomy/physics is not so different. Women remain a small minority, their attrition is higher, and they are noticeably more prevalent in some subfields than others. Although blind auditions are impractical in the scientific world — applicants for academic and research positions usually give talks, for example— there is evidence that gender influences supposedly objective review processes such as refereeing of papers or ranking of job applicants (Paludi and Bauer 1983, Wennerås and Wold 1997). The challenge for astronomy is to develop truly objective ways to evaluate scientific excellence, the analog of the blind audition.



Epstein G. Two-Part Harmony: Study finds that women make beautiful music. Barron’s Weekly, March 10, 1997.

Pauldi MA, Bauer WD (1983). Goldberg revisited: What’s in an author’s name? Sex Roles, 9:387-90.

Wennerås and Wold (1997). Nepotism and sexism in peer-review. Nature, 9(3):341-3.


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