Gender and hiring in music theory

There’s a connection between the growing acceptance of non-mainstream methodologies/repertoires and the growing number of marginalized people that have found success within our discipline.
Megan L. Lavengood

A new batch of Music Theory Jobs Wiki drama is going around, and this time it’s about the role of gender in hiring. It began with a 600+ word post from a disgruntled applicant (OP), alleging that “the chair of the committee confirmed to me that, although I was the best-qualified candicate [sic], my gender [male] was the primary reason that the job went to someone else,” and lamenting identity politics in a very “so much for the tolerant left!” sort of way.

But here’s the thing—even setting aside misguided notions like that one, the vast majority of professors getting hired today in music theory are hugely overqualified for their positions.

Everyone in theory knows that our diversity is abysmal, and one way of demonstrating that is with our gender statistics: it’s 33% women and 62% men according to the latest data. I usually say that if we are that poorly balanced in terms of gender, you don’t even wanna know how bad we are with race (but the society is 84% white, for the record). Across academia at large, the problems are similar. In response, it seems that many departments are looking to hire candidates from what might be called “diverse backgrounds”—a quick browse through the wiki shows that there do appear (based on gendered names) to be a disproportionate number of women being hired this year. In that sense, the allegation from the OP is plausible—committees do indeed seem to be taking gender into consideration while hiring new professors. What is implausible about what the OP suggests is the idea that he was the “best-qualified” candidate, but they went with someone presumably less qualified because they ticked a certain identity box.

Typically, job requirements for a music theory professorship are something like 1) a completed PhD in music theory and 2) experience teaching music theory at the college level, and sometimes 3) a demonstrated record of successful research. Looking at who landed jobs, everyone hired meets these requirements (or will by the time they start, in the case of ABDs). So while a commenter on that wiki thread laments “Ultimately, it will all backfire, because people are being hired with weaker credentials, less talent, and fewer skills just to please various quotas,” that seems to be a pretty pernicious lie that, wittingly or not, assumes that female/POC candidates are always less qualified than male candidates.

But here’s the thing—even setting aside misguided notions like that one, the vast majority of professors getting hired today in music theory are hugely overqualified for their positions. Most jobs are at teaching- and undergraduate-focused schools; most jobs involve teaching the core sequence of freshman- and sophomore-level theory and aural skills. If we’re being honest, you don’t need a PhD to do that. You certainly don’t need to have published tons of articles and a book to do that. The research requirements for most new hires is, “does this person seem to have a trajectory that will get them enough publications to get tenured at our school?” For this reason, when we’re talking about your average teaching-focused job, I don’t really buy the concept of being more qualified than another person just because you have more publications. I view that kind of thing strictly as bonus material. (Obviously research schools with theory PhD programs are a different story—but that’s a very small percentage of jobs, and they also often spell out more elaborate requirements.)

When committees set out to hire more women or more people of color, then, they are assuming that these groups are equally qualified as their male/white peers. If we assume that, the question becomes, why does race or gender matter, if everyone is equally qualified?

This statement incorrectly presumes that this is about nothing more than skin color or gender identity, when really, diversity is about the different perspectives that people from divergent backgrounds bring to the table.

A commenter on wiki, supporting the OP’s claims, wrote, “The truth is that for many reasons very few women have been interested in composition and theory.  And the truth is also that we won’t be able to ‘correct’ this historical fact by just hiring a bunch of women.  We can’t just *make* people interested in something that they often don’t want to do.” This comment betrays a lack of familiarity with the nature of said problems, and why hiring a bunch of women would actually go a long way toward fixing them.

An incomplete list of reasons why hiring women helps the gender balance of the field:

  • Women having jobs encourages them to remain in the field, in the society, and publishing
  • Women, based on their lived experiences, can offer important perspectives when mentoring their female advisees on how to navigate gender issues in the field, improving their rates of graduation and success (strengthening the pipeline)
  • Representation encourages people with similar identities to feel they belong in that space (strengthening the pipeline again)

But again, why help the gender balance? After all, the commenter goes on to suggest that “there is no inherent problem with having a very heavy presence of white males in the field.” This statement incorrectly presumes that this is about nothing more than skin color or gender identity, when really, diversity is about the different perspectives that people from divergent backgrounds bring to the table.

Even those that are squeamish toward affirmative action will usually laud the goal of a diversity of ideas. What these people might not understand is that diversity of identity leads naturally to that prized diversity of ideas. It’s well-known that we encourage more types of people to participate in a space if they see other people like them in that space. People who come from different backgrounds think differently from one another, and mixing these different ideas together enriches everyone in the space.

I have observed that female scholars dominate the field of timbre research in music theory. This was clearest to me as I made the syllabus for my timbre seminar that I taught last spring. Most of the authors we read happened to be women, and although lots of people need to go out of their way to cite equal numbers of men and women in their bibliographies and syllabi, that was not the case in this seminar—just, a lot of the great articles in timbre analysis have been written by women.

Hiring committees don’t just want a rainbow of people in their professoriate—from what I’ve seen, at least, committees want to hire someone doing innovative research, above all else. Timbre certainly qualifies, as it’s only recently flourished in music theory. What probably does not qualify are the theory standbys of Schenker and sets, and even analysis of classic rock. To show the contrast, compare a recent Contemporary Music Review special issue on timbre to the latest issue of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies: the former has a 50/50 split, while the latter has a 83/17 split. I realize this is hardly a representative sample, but it wouldn’t be hard to collect more data points.

Pie chart showing the statistics mentioned in text.

In short, I’m of the opinion that diversity of ideas is inextricably bound up in diversity of identity in our field. In my experience, women tend to feel forced outside the box in a way that men aren’t, which is not great, but the silver lining is that being forced outside the mainstream means creating new fields, which is ultimately a good thing for the discipline.

When the time came to declare a specialty and start working on a dissertation proposal, I knew I wanted to do one of two things: a Schenkerian approach to JS Bach fugues, or analysis of timbre in pop music. The person with whom I’d work if I did Schenker/Bach met with me and strongly advised me not to pursue that research topic—not because he didn’t think I was capable, but because he thought the field was toxic. Those weren’t his words, but my understanding of them—the way he put it, as I recall, was that everyone would expect you to have read every book and article and know every note of every piece, and if you didn’t, you wouldn’t be taken seriously even if you did have good analyses or methodology to offer. I’m not sharing this to pooh-pooh this faculty member—I presume that he would have given the same advice to anyone. But who would have taken that advice, and who would have ignored it? I took the advice and did my timbre/pop dissertation (in hindsight, this was clearly the right choice for me). I imagine that only a person who was unshakably confident that their opinions would be valued, and maybe even a little bit entitled, would have ignored it—which is to say, I think only a man would have ignored it. So it’s not that I think men are less creative and thus spurring less innovation—of course I adore the pioneering work of many male colleagues—but rather that I think a far higher percentage of men than women feel confident that they can specialize in a traditional, well-trod research topic and still be a desirable job search candidate.

This also speaks to why women have felt excluded from the field—because for a while there, the field was acting pretty exclusive. Publishing research only if it studies music in the canon excludes people who are not fluent with the canon (people who, probably, tend to be poorer and less white). A hegemony of a few methodologies like Schenker and sets lets a few experts be de facto intellectual gatekeepers of the whole field, which may cause more anxiety to some people than to others.

I presume that he would have given the same advice to anyone. But who would have taken that advice, and who would have ignored it?

I’m grateful that the field has moved beyond this to be more inclusive of these other ideas, because there’s a connection between the growing acceptance of non-mainstream methodologies/repertoires and the growing number of marginalized people that have found success within our discipline. Diversity isn’t just about filling a quota (if the quota even exists). Diversity is about recognizing that our ways of thinking are shaped by our experiences; our experiences are shaped by the facts of our identity. At the risk of sounding trite as hell: diversity improves the discipline, strengthens our universities, our departments, our students, and ourselves.

3 thoughts on “Gender and hiring in music theory

  1. I am deeply interested in any opinion you might have of the kind of research topic self-sorting you describe when it comes to historically overrepresented identities. I’ve noticed that some white men seem interested in pursuing diverse topics, outside the box topics, which you rightly point out have come to seem more the province of underrepresented groups, especially underrepresented genders. Given that we are all living with the violence of these power structures, is there some way to engage with topics of interest without “taking up space”, without recapturing the expanded range of ideas and reincorporating them into the patriarchal structures that banished them in the first place?

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. (When I first saw that someone had commented, I immediately dreaded reading it! But this was a pleasant surprise.)

      I certainly don’t want to give anyone the impression (and I’m not saying this is yours either!) that I don’t think men/white people shouldn’t engage in these new modes of inquiry. The more people doing this, the better, of course.

      A musicologist colleague of mine, Elizabeth Newton, wrote a really compelling essay that I’ve taken to heart ever since reading it. She advocates letting go of feeling the need to cite the incredibly famous work of well-established senior scholars for every little thing we write. To me, this really helps de-center the patriarchal tendencies of academia; the longer we stay deferent and tethered to our past, the longer that patriarchy will remain in control. Forcing each new thought in pop music to pay homage to Everett, Moore, and Covach holds us back, and takes up space we could otherwise give to more marginalized scholars.

      So, to go back to your original question, one way to prevent unduly taking up space is if we all commit to prioritizing citing marginalized scholars as much as we can, rather than throwing Caplin into every bibliography.

      I admit I haven’t thought much of this problem before receiving your comment—I look forward to more of a dialogue on this.

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