Let’s talk about inequalities: why increased awareness and discussion of inequalities does not necessarily lead to social change

This post is written by network member Dr. Christina Scharff.

Over recent years, discourse around diversity and equality in the classical music profession has been gaining increased traction. There have been a range of initiatives to promote women, musicians with disabilities, as well as Black and minority-ethnic players. Keychange, for example, is an international campaign which encourages music festivals and conferences to sign up to a 50:50 gender balance pledge by 2022. HERA is an intersectional, feminist opera company and SWAPR’ra was formed by a group of artists in the opera industry, who seek to effect positive change for women and parents in opera. formidAbility promotes accessibility and inclusion for those with disabilities in the opera scene, and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s Resound is a professional disabled-led ensemble. In 2015, the double bass player Chi-chi Nwanoku launched the Chineke! Foundation, which supports Black and minority ethnic classical musicians working in the UK and Europe. The foundation’s flagship ensemble, the Chineke! Orchestra is Europe’s first majority BAME orchestra. These initiatives have been widely discussed in the classical music industry; indeed, a recent announcement for a talk by Chi-chi Nwanoku states that “the lack of diversity in British orchestras, and the arts in general, is at the forefront of current debates in the UK classical music industry”.

This presentation explores how classical musicians respond to and make sense of recent efforts to diversify the classical music profession. Based on qualitative in-depth interviews with early-career, female musicians, the presentation traces shifts and continuities in discussions about ongoing inequalities. In particular, the presentation contrasts and compares how two cohorts of female, early-career musicians talked about gender, racial and class inequalities in 2012/2013 (n=64) and 2019 (n=18). While inequalities, and particularly gendered hierarchies of power were overwhelmingly disavowed in the earlier study, the 2019 research participants openly discussed classed, racialised and gendered exclusions. Thus, wider debates about inequality in the classical music profession seem to have had an effect on how female, early-career musicians make sense of the industry they work in.

Drawing on a discursive analysis of the interviews conducted in 2019, this presentation provides a detailed examination of how inequalities are talked about. The analysis shows that many research participants were aware of the lack of diversity in the classical music industry, used political language to discuss inequalities, and provided incisive accounts of ongoing hierarchies of power. As opposed to earlier research findings on the ‘unspeakability’ of inequalities in the cultural and creative industries, including the classical music profession, the research participants’ openness to talk about ongoing exclusions certainly marks a shift. However, there were also some striking continuities, mainly in relation to the use of neoliberal rhetoric in talk about inequalities, and the reliance on individualist responses to ongoing hierarchies of power. For example, numerous research participants shared experiences of sexual harassment, but stated that they had not reported it. All research participants worked on a freelance basis and felt that the reputation-based nature of informal recruitment meant that they could not speak out against sexual harassment. In this context, they often invoked the image of a strong, empowered woman standing up to call out inappropriate behaviour and conduct. Possible, collective responses were rarely mentioned. Sexual harassment, and its inappropriateness, was thus discussed amongst musicians and this marks an important shift. However, the research participants’ reliance on individualist solutions meant that the awareness of sexual harassment did act as a first step towards facilitating wider, structural change. Instead, the focus on individualist solutions often led to a sense of powerlessness and sometimes even failure, where research participants blamed themselves for ‘failing’ to speak out. The research participants’ engagement with sexual harassment, along with their wider use of neoliberal rhetoric in discussions about inequalities, cautions against providing an overly celebratory account of musicians’ increased awareness of racialised, classed and gendered exclusions. As is the case in relation to wider industry initiatives that seek to tackle the lack of diversity, careful, scholarly attention has to be paid to the ways in which inequalities are conceived, talked about, and what is done to mitigate against their persistence.

Dr. Christina Scharff is Reader in Gender, Media and Culture at King’s College London.