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A Surprising Gender Pay Gap Story From the World of Classical Music

Topics: Data & Research

Artists, writers and musicians often have trouble crossing over from side gig to full-time job. They make ends meet by working as waiters, office workers, delivery people, etc.

But for those lucky enough to use their artistic talents at a full-time job, it’s still hard to earn enough to make a living. “Starving artist” isn’t just a saying — it can be a reality.

We all need to make enough money to pay the rent. And, when we’re really, really good at something, we should make enough money to reflect that fact. If you’re a better artist than another artist, and you’re hired to work for the same company, then you should probably make more money.

Sadly, the gender pay gap persists even in the arts. Male musicians routinely earn more than their female colleagues.

What Is a Flutist Worth, Anyway?

gender pay gap in music
Rajesh Kavasseri/Unsplash

When Elizabeth Rowe started playing flute at age 7, she likely never anticipated her future career. She became the principal flutist for one of the country’s top five orchestras, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in 2004. And she is now the plaintiff in a lawsuit against her employer.

The suit, filed on December 11, 2018, was possibly the first under the new Massachusetts Equal Pay Act (the MEPA), which went into effect last month. Per, the act states, “Employers cannot pay workers a salary or wage less than what they pay employees of a different gender for comparable work. The law defines ‘comparable work’ as work that requires substantially similar skill, effort, and responsibility, and is performed under similar working conditions.”

Rowe tells NPR that she is paid less than a male colleague in a comparable role:

Rowe says that she is currently the top-paid female principal player in the BSO, while the BSO’s principal oboist, John Ferrillo, is the symphony’s top-paid male principal musician. According to the BSO’s 2016 IRS Form 990, Ferrillo was paid $286,621, the largest salary paid to any BSO principal musician. …Rowe says that Ferrillo’s role in the orchestra is the most comparable to her own, and yet she is paid approximately 75 percent of his earnings.

Ferrillo is quoted in the suit as referring to Rowe as “the finest orchestral flutist in North America and absolutely equal to himself.”

Do You Know What You're Worth?

Do Blind Auditions Make Everything Better?

Like many professional musicians these days, Rowe auditioned behind a screen for her position as principal flutist. She competed against 59 others who had made the cut after an initial group of over 250 musicians had applied. She won, becoming only the second female musician to fill a principal role at the BSO at the time.

“In 1970, women made up fewer than 5 percent of the players in the big five,” writes Geoff Edgers recently in a lengthy piece in The Washington Post. “The [Boston Symphony Orchestra] was the first to use a screen, in 1952, and other orchestras followed to create the blind audition process.”

“The screens made a difference,” Edgers writes. “The New York Philharmonic, for example, has gone from 90 men and 26 women in 1993 to its current makeup of 48 men and 44 women.”

(Check out this 1974 New York Times article on the “changing times” when orchestras started frequently using screens during auditions. The article also discusses the fact that the system helped to boost the number of minority musicians in orchestras as well.)

Gender Reveals May Lead to Bias

Screens that protect the musicians keep their genders a secret from the panel that makes hiring decisions. But many orchestras do final auditions with the musician in full view. They play with the orchestra to see the final dynamic. Makes sense, but rather dulls the point of blind auditions.

Despite how Rowe made her way onto the orchestra, her gender is very clear when it comes time for yearly salary negotiations. She’s requested her pay be increased to be more commensurate with her talent and experience each year, and each year the BSO declined.

Gina Pezzoli, who plays cello professionally in the Greensboro Symphony in North Carolina, performs as a freelance musician as well. Pezzoli has seen the effectiveness of screens … and has also occasionally benefited from having her gender known during the hiring process.

“My audition for the [Greensboro] symphony was a blind audition behind a screen,” Pezzoli tells PayScale. “There was a piece of carpet laid out along the path to the stage so that the audition panel could not tell if I was male or female based on my footsteps. The final round was in full view of the committee. I actually auditioned twice in different years (once for a one-year position, and again a few years later for a permanent position) and both times, all cello finalists were female.”

Sometimes, Pezzoli said her gender has occasionally helped her land a freelance job.

“Rod Stewart, for instance, hires local string players on tour and everyone he used on the concert I played was female,” she says.

A Gender Pay Gap Across the Board

gender pay gap in music
Manuel Nägeli/Unsplash

“There is an undeniable gender gap in the classical-music world,” writes Edgers. “A Post analysis of tax records and orchestra rosters shows that although women make up nearly 40 percent of the country’s top orchestras, when it comes to the principal, or titled, slots, 240 of 305 — or 79 percent — are men. The gap is even greater in the ‘big five’ — the orchestras in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia and New York. Women occupy just 12 of 73 principal positions in those orchestras.”

Orchestras are slowly becoming more diverse, in gender and race. See two recent diversity studies published by the League of American Orchestras, for examples. But still, musicians frequently turn to freelance work because major orchestra spots rarely come up for grabs. The freelance life can be tough, as many artists know too well, and musicians are no strangers to juggling multiple gigs.

Being able to effectively negotiate rates is a valuable skill. But when an employer perpetuates a gender-biased pay rate, then that’s a big problem.

Need help negotiating? See the PayScale Salary Negotiation Guide for advice in any situation.

The Role of Collective Bargaining

“Unionized orchestras at the national and regional levels have collective bargaining agreements and they negotiate payment, benefits and so forth with the orchestra’s management,” says Laura Perkett, oboist, soprano and founder and artistic director of the CHAI Collaborative Ensemble.

She continues, “The frequency of these negotiations depend on the contracts agreed upon between those ensembles and their management (i.e. for contracts that last two years, the orchestra and management will negotiate when the contract is ready to end, rather than on an annual basis). I personally have not been in a situation where I felt I needed to negotiate for more compensation for myself.”

Not quite a union, these types of internal groups can perform the sometimes awkward tasks of individual salary negotiations for musicians in smaller symphonies. With the committee system, there are no dues or union fees, Pezzoli said. But it is union-like in its benefits for the musicians that are put in writing.

“We are not a union orchestra. However, our ‘Master Agreement’ (a document that sets out guidelines for our working conditions, including pay, rehearsal length, breaks, room temperature, etc.) is very heavily influenced by guidelines set in place by the unions, which are more active in Raleigh and Charlotte,” she said. “I would guess that this setup is quite common in regional, part-time professional orchestras like ours, where the union presence is not very strong.”

Freelancers Can Still Feel the Pinch

Many musicians “freelance” in orchestras or smaller chamber groups, and that can present its own problems with rate negotiations. Factors that impact take-home pay include whether or not the musician is in a union (which sets scale), their physical proximity to the gig/rehearsal space and the amount of time involved for playing the gig or practicing.

Freelance professional musician Elizabeth Holub (no relation) is based in New York. She lays out how a typical violin or viola gig works out for her:

“When I get a gig, it is a contract pay-per-service or an honorarium,” Holub says. “Gigs are obtained through professional references — there are almost never traditional auditions in the freelance world. People know you, know your playing, and refer each other for gigs.”

“Pay is not really negotiable for a freelancer,” she says. “For instance, I might get a call from a symphony in New Jersey doing a non-union gig. They are offering $65 per rehearsal and $75 for the concert. There are three rehearsals and one concert, so the total is $270 over four services.”

“If you have to miss a rehearsal, you either don’t take the gig or you don’t get paid for that service,” she says. “Keep in mind, each rehearsal is three hours long and commute each way could be one-and-a-half to two hours. So, doing the math, that is $11.25 per hour for this gig. Pretty abysmal.”


Have you experienced the gender pay gap while working as a musician or other artist? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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