Hannah Kendall: seeing the unseen bias

Acclaimed composer Hannah Kendall has never knowingly experienced discrimination, but asks: would she know if she had?

As far as I’m aware, I have never been discriminated against because of my gender. This might seem like a strange statement to open with when I’ve been asked to write about my experiences as a female composer; a profession that is very much male-dominated. But it’s the truth. My career is going well, I’ve received a number of high-profile commissions, and I have really exciting projects lined up for the future.

However, I might very well have been unknowingly passed-up for opportunities due to something called unconscious bias. Unconsciously, we tend to like and associate with people we see as similar to ourselves. That’s not a criticism – it’s simply a fact. As humans we have biases, no matter how open-minded we think we are, and because the commissioners, programmers and decision-makers within classical music are rarely brown-skinned ladies from Wembley, like myself, it’s something that often crosses my mind.

So, while my career journey has very much been a positive one, I do think there’s a danger that we focus on individual success stories, and as a result avoid quite significant issues. For anyone who might not quite be on board yet, I ask you this: why should it be that the percentage of women performers in US orchestras increased by a quarter when ‘blind’ auditions were introduced? Surely it’s because panels were unable to determine their gender. How very interesting, how very worrying. Is the same happening, I wonder, with composers?

Well, frankly, the numbers don’t look great in this area either. Women composers make up less than 14 per cent of those currently registered with the Performing Rights Society: a huge gender imbalance. Furthermore, women make up less than 17 per cent of those on the books at the UK’s main publishing houses – and at some, that figure is as low as three per cent. Why are we still seeing these figures when we have more women than ever writing music? Are women not being commissioned, or is their music just not being programmed?

I’m very aware that I’m in a unique position to speak up about these issues. I make it my business to work closely with academics researching into equality and diversity in classical music – people such as Dr Christina Scharff, Lecturer in Culture, Media and Creative Industries at King’s College London, whose recently published report highlights these concerns.

I want to know the trends within the classical music sector and their causes, so that we can work together to instil change. This is something that should be happening more widely, with industry members, musicians and academics working together. We’re all on the same page, we all agree that there are imbalances – but what are we going to do about it?

Personally, I’m a supporter of positive action, as I believe it’s a short-term solution to enable long-term change. I particularly admire initiatives such as the PRS for Music Foundation’s Women Make Music initiative, which aims to increase the profile of women who are creating new music in the UK by offering support of up to GBP5,000 (€7,000). The scheme helps to break down assumptions and stereotypes within the music industry by encouraging role models for future generations, raising awareness of the gender gap, ensuring women know that support for new music is available to them, and by stimulating new collaborations between organisations and female music creators.

I also think that composers – and indeed musicians in general – need to be entrepreneurial. My current project is a one-man opera based on Caribbean-Guyanese political activist and poet Martin Carter, set during a hunger strike while he was imprisoned without charge. Five of his own poems are being interwoven into the libretto. It’s a project that I’ve wanted to do for a while because it not only draws on my own heritage, but also allows me to create a role for a singer of African-Caribbean descent. I’m producing it myself because if I wait for someone to commission the work it might not happen.

I’m forever grateful for the support I received from important industry members, but few knew of my work before I approached them. I’m not one of the three-to-17 per cent of women on the books at one of the main publishing houses. This truly isn’t a gripe; I enjoy the challenge of forging my career in different ways. But if so few women composers have influential powerhouses to help plug their work to the big commissioning bodies, it must surely account for the gender gap in some way.

However, rest assured, I think things are changing. It’s great that we’re continuing to have these conversations, but more importantly, actions are being taken. There have been fantastic examples of important bodies actively working towards tackling these issues, such as BBC Radio 3 featuring women composers on their Composer of the Week show in the week following International Women’s Day. It was a privilege to be a part of the series – but more still needs to be done to guarantee that one day, these sorts of considerations are a thing of the past.