‘Current Issues in HE’: NAMHE-Convened Roundtable Discussion from the RMA Research Students’ Conference, University of Bangor, Jan. 2016. Part II

In the second part of our transcription of the ‘Current Issues in HE’ NAMHE-convened roundtable discussion that took place at the RMA Research Students’ Conference in January at the University of Bangor, Dr Laura Hamer reflects on the issues of gender and equality in music HE.


Part I         Part II          Part III          Part IV          Part V

Presenter [Zaina Shihabi]:

Thank you, Dr Collins. Our next speaker is Dr Laura Hamer, and she’s the Head of Music – course leader for both the BA Music and MA Music degrees – and director of the Women in Music research group at Liverpool Hope University. Within NAMHE, she is particularly interested in advocating for full gender equality within music education, and her research interests lie in women in music, reception and criticism studies, and nineteenth- and early twentieth-century music, particularly in France and Austro-Germany. She has published numerous articles and book chapters on these topics. The title of her talk is ‘Gender and Equality in Music in Higher Education’. Dr Laura:

Second Speaker [Dr Laura Hamer]:

Thank you, Zaina. So I’d like to talk today about gender and equality in music HE, in particular what NAMHE has been doing in relation to this area over the last eighteen months. I’m sure that all of us are aware that across all musical practices, cultures and traditions music has been highly gendered. Gender has tended to dictate historically which instruments men and women should play, which genres they should work within, how they should perform, and strongly influenced how their music is received. Even today, several areas of the musical profession remain highly gendered, with a noted male dominance within fields such as conducting, music technology, and rock music. Within HE, despite the high numbers of female undergraduate students and healthy numbers of female academics within more junior posts, senior, managerial and professorial roles remain male-dominated. As you might already be aware, NAMHE has a very strong commitment to advocating for music within HE – as I’m sure Chris has demonstrated – and this includes a strong commitment to gender equality. It’s important to acknowledge, however, that NAMHE’s committed to equality across the board, including racial and ethnic equality, and equality for all staff and students with disabilities. However, in my allotted ten minutes today I’m going to focus specifically on what we’ve done around gender equality.

So specifically over the last eighteen months NAMHE has been involved with two major initiatives in this area. Firstly, the commissioning of a report on gender and equality in music HE, which was written in response to the launch of the Equality Challenge Unit’s new Gender Equality Mark, or ‘GEM’ scheme. And secondly, our involvement as a consultant stakeholder in Edexcel’s revision of the AS and A level music syllabus requirements over the last six months, to include more set works and wider listening suggestions by female composers and songwriters.

So to turn first to the ‘Gender and Equality in Music HE’ report. In 2014, NAMHE commissioned a piece of research into gender and equality in music HE. The research was undertaken by Dr Danijela Bogdanovic, who was employed by NAMHE to do this research project. Her report is written in the form of a full report which you can find on our website, where there’s also a nice little film with her in which she talks about the research and some of her findings. So this research was partly completed in preparation for the launch of the Equality Challenge Unit’s new Gender Equality Mark, or ‘GEM’ scheme, which was merged with the Athena Swan Charter in April 2015. As I’m sure you’re aware, the Athena Swan Charter was launched in 2005 to address gender inequalities and imbalances among academic staff in science-related subjects. The GEM scheme was to extend the Athena Swan initiative to the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, and in particular the under-representation of women in more senior roles. Although GEM was modelled closely on the principles of Athena Swan, it was also expanded to include professional and support staff along with academics, transgender staff, men, and the progression of students into academia. The figures published in the Equality in HE Statistical Report in 2013 suggest that this new research into gender and equality in music HE was particularly timely. The 2015 report found that although 53.8 percent of staff employed in UK HE institutions were women, 62.3 percent of these were actually in professional or support roles, whilst the majority of academics – 55.5 percent – remained male. Gender imbalance at a senior level was very stark, as it actually found that 79.5 – or nearly 80 – percent of all UK professors were male.

Against these raw statistics Dani decided to adopt a qualitative approach in her research undertaken for NAMHE, by undertaking five focus group discussions with 23 participants based in music departments or schools in English, Welsh and Scottish HE institutions, including one conservatoire. Nineteen of the participants were academic staff and four were in a professional or support role. Of the participants, 11 were male and 12 were female. Some of the findings, issues and themes which emerged from the focus group discussions are quite challenging for us, and it’s probably a good time to think about the issues that still exist in 2014-15. So amongst her findings Dani found that, although the majority of her focus group participants felt that most HE institutions had good intentions towards gender equality, and that supportive and collegiate environments tended to exist within individual departments, wider HE environments tended to be highly hierarchical and male-dominated. Many of the participants felt that this influenced shortlisting and appointment processes as many interview panels tended to be dominated by older men. Participants within the focus groups were keenly aware of the gendering of music as an academic discipline, including pervasive links between gender and genre within both classical and popular music; the persistent gendering of instruments and the male dominance of several subject specialisms, particularly including composition, conducting, and music technology. A number of female participants, particularly those working within music technology, reported feeling a lack of trust in their professional expertise, and the need to constantly prove themselves. Dani’s research also confirmed the gendering of academic and support roles which the Equality in HE Statistical Report suggested. The gendering of roles within music HE also has a significant impact on the overall student experience, and especially the particular pathways chosen by students, as, sometimes, when they can’t see a lot of women working within a particular area, some female students feel less able to enter it, just as some male students can feel a bit inhibited to enter an area which they perceive as being dominated by women.

For me, one the most disturbing findings of Dani’s report was what she claimed to be a fear of starting a family which many of her female participants reported. She felt that this almost amounted to what she termed ‘maternity leave anxiety’, as many of the female participants reported feeling that taking just a few months of maternity leave would have a disastrous consequence upon their career. They also reported feeling anxiety over not being seen as contributing sufficiently to their department’s REF ethos and other key performance indicators once they were on leave.

Fortunately, however, it’s not all doom and gloom, and the focus group participants suggested a number of key ideas for improving gender equality within HE, including proactively engaging with students to challenge the existing gendered perceptions about music, including choices of topics, instruments, past practices, and career paths. Encouraging and developing critical thinking about gender amongst students by strategically embedding gender within the curriculum; increasing the visibility of positive role models for students; staff addressing their own gendered expectations whilst working with students; providing mentoring, encouragement, and support to female students and staff pursuing careers in traditionally male-dominated areas; and crucially, encouraging academic families to share parental leave or for more men to take extended paternity leave.

The other key work that NAMHE has been doing in terms of music and gender equality is in relation to our consultation on Edexcel’s revised AS and A level music syllabus. As I’m sure many of you are aware, last summer an A level music student named Jessie McCabe wrote to Edexcel to highlight her concerns that there were no women on the syllabus. We wrote to Edexcel in support of Miss McCabe and were invited to consult on revising the curriculum, and I’m very happy and proud to say that Edexcel took our concerns seriously, and they completely revised their curriculum, and there are now a lot of works by women composers and songwriters.

So in conclusion, although the findings uncovered by Dani’s report indicate that obstacles – or at least perceived obstacles – to gender equality still exist within music HE, the success represented by the revision of Edexcel’s curriculum proves that things can change for the better. Presenting AS and A level music students with a more balanced curriculum in terms of gender representation is a hugely important step in terms of young people encountering a gender-neutral curriculum which values the contributions of both male and female musicians. The more we seek to challenge long-held assumptions and to find creative solutions, such as those provided by the participants in the Gender and Equality in Music HE research project, to overcome barriers, the closer we can move to a gender-equal discipline. We have three female heads of department on our panel today, so if we can do it, anybody can.




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