Michael Dervan: What my undercover stint as a woman taught me about sexism

Many years ago I wrote about music for a while under a female pseudonym. It was a real eye-opener

It would be easy to think that the row over gender equality in the Abbey Theatre’s 2016 programme will have far-reaching consequences. But the history of inequality is mostly of long, slow struggles, whether it’s been about rich and poor, the haves and have-nots, differences of race, skin colour, sexual orientation or gender, or the mere fact of illness or disability.

Inequalities are often effectively invisible to the people who perpetrate them. But they can be astonishing when you meet them unexpectedly. Many years ago I wrote about music for a while under a female pseudonym. I needed to be sure that I wouldn’t be rumbled and thought it was the best cover I could have.

Friends who knew nothing of my deception pointed out to me the various ways in which my alter ego’s approach and even writing style differed from mine. People sending on information or making pitches for coverage struck a markedly different tone when dealing with “her” rather than me.

The musical world has had its struggles with inequalities. I remember sitting at lunch with Deborah Borda when the New York Philharmonic made its first visit to Dublin. She was then the orchestra’s executive director (she is now with the Los Angeles Philharmonic) and she took great delight in telling me about the trouble the orchestra had with a discrimination case taken by black musicians in the late 1960s.


The musicians lost their case, but orchestras were spurred into action by the prospect of more cases along similar lines. The solution was to hold blind auditions, with the musicians and the assessment panels separated by a curtain. The results were startling. Black musicians did not see any particular benefit, but orchestras found themselves hiring far more women.

I know of one woman who auditioned for a job with what was then the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra in the 1970s, and was officially told that being a woman militated against her because of all it implied in terms of pregnancies and time off.

Things have changed a lot since then. About 45 per cent of the players listed for the orchestra’s most recent concert were female, and the current leader and co- leader are both women. The RTÉ Concert Orchestra is also led by a woman, as is the Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera. And in 45 years the Irish Chamber Orchestra has only ever had women leaders.

The RTÉ NSO is managed by a woman, as are Chamber Choir Ireland, the Contemporary Music Centre and the new music groups the Crash Ensemble and Concorde, the last of those a model of gender balance in programming. The Royal Irish Academy of Music, the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama and Music Network are all currently headed up by women.

Irish woman Maighréad McCrann became the first woman to lead a major orchestra in Vienna when she was appointed first Konzertmeister with the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1993. But that success came only after published reports that her gender had been an issue in her failure in securing a similar post with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra held out against women becoming full members until 1997 and remains a bastion of maleness.

Whatever about the actual players, the biggest orchestral imbalances are in the standard repertoire, which is largely of music by dead, white males, and in the makeup of the conducting profession, where women still hardly get a look-in, although the Ulster Orchestra broke the mould in Ireland by having JoAnn Falletta as principal conductor from 2011 to 2014.

Ethna Tinney, now perhaps best-known for her testimony to the Oireachtas banking inquiry, formed and conducted Classical Graffiti in the 1980s.

Dáirine Ní Mheadhra was the conductor of the short-lived new music ensemble Nua Nós in the 1990s, and went on to co-found and conduct the award-winning Queen of Puddings Music Theatre in Toronto. And the winner of the 2014 ESB Feis Ceoil Orchestral Conducting Competition was Elaine Kelly.

But there’s no escaping the fact that a woman on the podium in front of a professional orchestra is still a rarity in Ireland, although many of our most successful amateur choirs are conducted by women.

Bernie Sherlock's New Dublin Voices, which has been showered with awards at home and abroad, gave its 10th anniversary concert with President Michael D Higgins in the audience on Sunday.

About 40 per cent of the premieres I was notified of in the first 10 months of the year were by women. But there are still areas in which women composers struggle. Wexford Festival Opera has never featured an opera by a woman, nor did Opera Ireland over its nearly seven-decade lifespan; and the last time Opera Theatre Company performed work by a woman was in the early 1990s. NI Opera, founded in 2010, premiered Deirdre McKay's Driven as part of the cultural celebrations surrounding the London Olympics 2012.

Ultimately, like so much in any society, it's a matter of systems and choice. If Ireland had a straight vote system for presidential elections, Mary Robinson may never have become president. And if Britain had an electoral system anything like Ireland's, one-party rule would probably have given way to a coalition long before it did.

Systems influence outcomes, as potential candidates for our upcoming national elections are discovering with a vengeance, because of the new linkage of public funding for political parties and the 30 per cent quota for female candidates.

The Abbey debacle has done us all a favour by starting a serious debate about what constitutes an acceptable gender balance, and if affirmative action and positive discrimination are going to be the only way forward.

  • mdervan@irishtimes.com