Gender (in)equality: Is it an issue in music psychology?

Although I consider myself a feminist in a fairly broad sense of the term, I can’t say that I’ve necessarily been very proactive in my life thus far in making substantial contributions toward advancing the position of women in society. Gender inequality and gender stereotypes are not something I really thought about much in the early years of my life; a large part of this may be related to the fact that my mother has always instilled a strong sense of belief in me that women can achieve anything that men can, and never allowed the thought to even cross my mind that women cannot be good at maths or science or sports. In my academic career, I’ve also been fortunate to have had several strong female role models to look up to—most notably my PhD supervisor, who in addition to providing excellent research supervision was also not hesitant to discuss how future choices like marriage and children might affect my career path, and what types of career decisions might help to obtain the best possible balance between work and personal life. So for most of my life to date I haven’t necessarily had to think much for myself about this topic, or had to deal with any major issues or consequences of gender inequality.

Gender issues have more recently come to the forefront of my mind for several reasons. First, when I came to Durham two years ago I was faced with moving from a department that was quite equally balanced in terms of gender (including several female Professors, and having had a female Head of Department during my PhD) to a department where I was only the third female member of staff out of around 16 staff members (with no female members of staff above the post of Lecturer). I suddenly became much more conscious of my gender, and more likely to find myself in a position as the ‘token woman’ where I felt the need to speak on behalf of my gender as a whole. Second, in line with efforts to improve upon this gender imbalance and focus more closely on potential gender-related issues, our department is currently applying for an Athena SWAN bronze award (a gender equality initiative within higher education; more info here), and I have recently become a member of the committee who are preparing this application. This process has thus forced me to think about gender equality in a much more in-depth manner from a variety of angles.

My current research project has some room to improve in terms of gender balance.

One interesting part of the Athena SWAN process has been the assessment not only of the gender balance of staff and students in the department, but thinking more broadly about the wider academic curriculum–for instance, whether female scholars are represented equally in reading lists to males (to give just one example). Initially, such an idea seemed a bit silly to me, since my primary goal is to expose students to good research, regardless of the gender of the author. However, this assertion relies on trusting that I myself am not being unconsciously influenced by the gender of the authors when making the decision of what constitutes ‘good research’, of which I can of course never be 100% certain. Thus, I do think it is worth a bit of reflection on whether we as academics (even those of us who are female) are giving equal credit to our peers and colleagues in the field regardless of gender and, if not, why this may be the case. I also realize that there are various fields where there are just many more males working in that area, so creating a reading list with a 50/50 gender split may be meaningless, but it is at least at that point worth trying to investigate further as to why fewer females are in the field, and whether there is anything that can or should be done to address the disparity (e.g. incentives for promising female researchers or attempts to provide more female role models—some of these issues are now being taken into account here at Durham University within the recruitment and promotions processes, although the long-term consequences of such procedures remains to be seen).

In terms of female representation in leadership roles, the field of music psychology seems to be doing perhaps a bit better than some other academic disciplines. This could be due to the fact that it is a relatively young field, and thus females have been given more equal opportunities from the start, or could be related to several strong female academics being key players in the initial development of the field. The Society for Music Perception & Cognition (SMPC), which is the primary North American organization in the field, began in 1990 with Diana Deutsch as Founding President. Five women have served as President (out of 12 total presidents), and the current board comprises 8/10 females. Interestingly, the analogous European organization—the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music (ESCOM) – has not demonstrated such an equal gender split, with only 1/9 presidents since 1992 being female (though with some other female board members, and 6/13 current board members being female). In addition, Irène Deliège was a key founding member who also founded the society’s journal Musicae Scientiae. The Asia-Pacific Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music is a slightly younger organization, which lists 3/8 female presidents since 2001. Two of the key journals in the field, Music Perception and Psychology of Music currently have women as their editors, and several other journals (e.g. Empirical Musicology Review, Psychomusicology) have very recently had women editors. On the other hand, the Journal of New Music Research lists 7 former editors on its website and none of these are female (nor is the current editor).

6 of the 12 past presidents of SMPC: Carol Krumhansl, Ric Ashley, Diana Deutsch, Justin London, Andrea Halpern, & Edward Large

So, despite a few minor issues, it appears that music psychology as a whole is doing fairly well in terms of gender balance of leadership of key organisations and journals, although future points for exploration could include investigating more subtle differences, such as whether female researchers in our field are getting as many citations as males, or as many promotions to Professorships. Generally, I find the fact that there are so many female academics holding influential posts within the field personally inspiring, and something that I hope to live up to, though at the same time am keen to ensure that the continued success of women in the field is not achieved at the expense of other important elements of one’s life, such as being able to have a family and maintaining one’s own personal well-being.

I hope that the field of music psychology can continue to show progress in this area, and may even be able to serve as a model for other disciplines striving to achieve a better gender balance. In terms of my own contribution, at the moment one of my goals is to provide solid mentorship for promising female students and to be unafraid to discuss gender issues and potential challenges of being female openly and honestly with these students. I’m sure there are many other improvements yet to be made, such as how we can integrate non-binary conceptions of gender, rather than solely focusing on improving the situation for people who identify as female. It would be really useful to hear others’ thoughts in the comments section below. Do you think gender inequality is an issue in music psychology, and, if so, what should we do about it?





2 thoughts on “Gender (in)equality: Is it an issue in music psychology?

  1. Music psychology is not immune to the gender issues affecting academia more generally, and the first step towards solving them is to become more conscious of these issues and their effects, and to spread awareness. Just today I received a call for papers for an emotion-themed conference with only men as the 5 invited speakers. As an example of a concrete action to improve gender balance at conferences, male academics can sign a pledge not to be part of all-male panels:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.