Battling Unconscious Biases

Most of us know that we harbour implicit or unconscious biases, but are at a loss about how to address them. Many orchestras have long acknowledged these biases and have responded by having job candidates audition behind a screen to ensure anonymity, resulting in an increased number of women in these orchestras. Similarly, the Society for Music Theory has worked at removing the impact of these biases by engaging in double-blind review of articles for the Society’s journals; double-blind review has been successful: the acceptance rate of articles by women in Music Theory Spectrum and Music Theory Online is on par with men.

Most scholars, whether male or female, believe that they are not prejudiced against women, or members of the LGBTQ communities, or people with disabilities, or people of colour, but scientific studies show us clearly that unconscious biases shape all of our interactions. As bell hooks says, we are all capable of being both oppressed and oppressor (Hooks, 2000, 16). We unwittingly act on these biases in a number of ways, but I will focus here on letters of recommendation, on our citation habits, and on our invitations to conferences and academic panels. It is only by recognizing and actively countering these biases that we can dismantle systemic barriers and create true diversity in our institutions and in this Society. Here are some concrete suggestions for how to do that.

Letters of reference for male students, whether or not the letter-writer is male or female, are “4x more likely to mention publications” and emphasize research, praising achievement, while letters for women are 50% more likely to use adjectives that praise effort (Commission on the Status of Women, University of Arizona). When we write letters for women, we need to make a deliberate effort to highlight their achievements.

In academic publications in general, we cite more male authors than female, which has a negative impact on the careers of women. You can address this problem by checking your bibliography and resources when writing your next article or course syllabus, and deliberately seeking out work by women.

Finally: avoid the all-male panel; seeing panel after panel of only men presenting reinforces implicit bias. If you can’t think of a female theorist who is working on the topic of your special session or event, review recent issues of music theory journals, and check out the SMT Committee on the Status of Women’s most recent resource, a directory of women in music theory, developed by student member, Stefanie Acevedo.

Jennifer Bain

List of citations:

bell hooks. Feminist Theory: from Margin to Center. London: Pluto Press, 1984; 2nd edition, 2000.

Avoiding gender bias in reference writing.” Commission on the Status of Women, University of Arizona.

SMT/AMS 2016 CSW Schedule of Events

Just an update to let everyone know about our events during this year’s conference. See you in Vancouver!

Friday, November 4: 

7:00-8:45 a.m.: CSW Breakfast meeting (Blue Whale) – Committee members only!
8:00-11:00 p.m.: CSW Session – Frauenarbeit: Four Triptychs by Women in Music Theory (Pavilion Ballroom B) 

  • Jennifer Bain (Dalhousie University), Session Moderator
  • Gretchen Horlacher (Indiana University), “Movement in Music and Dance: A Neoclassical Collaboration for Orpheus”
  • Julie Hedges Brown (Northern Arizona University), “Re-Hearing Schumann: A Ballet, a Quartet Adagio, and Multivalent Identity”
  • Robin Attas (Elon University), “Dancing an Analysis: Approaching Popular Music Theory through Dance”
  • Ellen Bakulina (University of North Texas), “Non-Monotonality and Proto-Harmony in Rachmaninoff”
  • Charity Lofthouse (Hobart and William Smith Colleges) and Sarah Marlowe (New York University), “Pushing the Boundaries: Mismatch and Overlap in Shostakovich’s ‘Classical’ Structures”
  • Deborah Rifkin (Ithaca College), “Prokofiev’s Chromaticism in Fairy Tales: Cinderella and Peter and the Wolf ”
  • Nancy Yunhwa Rao (Rutgers University), “Analysis, and the Dilemma of Music Genealogy: The Cases of Ruth Crawford and Johanna Beyer”
  • Antonella Di Giulio (Buffalo State College), “Blind and Imaged: Musical Intuitions in an Open Work”
  • Patricia Hall (University of Michigan), “‘Border Crossing’ in Dario Marianelli’s Score for Atonement”
  • Laura Emmery (Emory University), “Repetition and Formal Destruction in Popular Music”
  • Victoria Malawey (Macalester College), “Analyzing the Popular Voice”
  • Jacqueline Warwick (Dalhousie University), “Listening with a Gendered Ear”

Saturday, November 5:

12:15-1:45 p.m.: CSW Brown Bag Open Lunch (Parksville) – ALL are welcome. Please bring your lunches and suggestions for making SMT more inclusive!

*Also to note: Oxford University Press is hosting a reception on Friday evening from 6:30-8:00 p.m. (Pavilion Ballroom C). The press will be featuring Laurel Parsons and Brenda Ravenscroft’s first book in their series of analytical essays on music by women (more info on the book can be seen here).

CSW Update – from SMT Newsletter 39.2

This blurb was originally posted in the SMT August 2016 Newsletter (39.2).

The mission of the Committee on the Status of Women is to promote gender equity in the Society. The Committee pursues this mission by hosting a number of mentoring programs, a Facebook page, and a blog, by sending a letter about illegal interview questions to all universities and colleges posting jobs in music theory, and by hosting both an informal brownbag lunch meeting, as well as a formal session every year at the annual meeting. Some of the formal sessions at the annual meeting have addressed professional issues for women in music theory, while others have been oriented around current scholarship, sometimes focused on recent work in feminist theory and/or on music composed by women. For the 2016 meeting in Vancouver, the session highlights the cornucopia of work produced by women in music theory, with an all-female session of twelve lightning talks that cover a wide range of topics and approaches in the field. With eight papers selected through a blind peer-review process and four invited speakers, the session contains four thematic groupings of papers: music analysis and dance, Russian music, analysis of twentieth-century music, and analysis of popular music. For each grouping there will be three 10-minute talks, followed by 15 minutes of discussion.

For the 2017 meeting in Arlington, Virginia the committee will mark the Fortieth anniversary of the Society and the Thirtieth anniversary of the Committee on the Status of Women by hosting a session on the music of renowned composer, Chen Yi (b.1953). Dr. Chen’s orchestral work, Si Ji (Four Seasons) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in music in 2006. Her music has been performed and commissioned by internationally acclaimed musicians and orchestras ranging from Yo-Yo Ma to Evelyn Glennie, from the Cleveland Orchestra to the New York Philharmonic, from the BBC and Singapore Symphonies to the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden. Studies of her music have been published in English, Chinese, and German, including twenty-three completed doctoral dissertations in which she is named in the title. The Committee will be sending out a call for papers for this session soon, and is delighted that the composer herself will be able to attend the session. —Jennifer Bain (CSW Chair)

CFP for 2016 SMT CSW Session

2016 CSW CFP

The Committee on the Status of Women’s session for the 2016 SMT Annual Meeting in Vancouver will focus on showcasing scholarly work by women in the field of music theory. The Committee invites proposals from female scholars for short (10-minute) papers on any topic of current relevance to the field, including (but not limited to): analysis and performance studies, atonal and diatonic set theory, feminist theory, gender and sexuality studies, hermeneutics, history of music theory, neo-Riemannian theory, popular music studies, Schenkerian theory, semiotics, and Sonata Theory. Work should not already have been published or accepted by a peer-reviewed journal, but may have been read at national or international meetings in a related discipline. The Committee will select 14 papers for two rounds of “lightning” talks, each round followed by a 20-minute discussion session.

Proposals must be submitted to Jennifer Bain, CSW Chair at bainj[a] no later than January 8, 2016.

Submissions should include:

  • A proposal of no more than 250 words (including foot/endnotes), formatted as a PDF email attachment. A maximum of four pages of supplementary materials (such as musical examples, diagrams, and selected bibliography) may be appended; these pages will not be counted within the 250-word limit, but any supplementary text (e.g., example captions) should not appreciably add to the content of the proposal. (Each mathematical equation may be counted as one word.) The proposal must include the title of the paper, but exclude the author’s name and any other identifying information. “Author” tags must be removed from electronic files. References to the author’s own work must occur in the third person.
  • Identification and contact information in the submission e-mail, including the name, postal address, e-mail address, and telephone number of the author(s), as well as their rank and institutional affiliation, if any.
  • A list of all required equipment (such as piano, CD player, or LCD projector) other than the sound system that will be available for all presenters. The Society cannot provide Internet access for presentations.

Proposal Advising Program – New Program Coordinator/Deadlines

Dear Colleagues,

For the past ten years the Committee on the Status of Women (CSW) has sponsored a Proposal Advising Program aimed at increasing the number of women submitting proposals to SMT annual conferences and the number of proposals by women accepted.  In this program we pair up female graduate students and junior faculty with veterans of previous program committees and/or multiple successful paper proposals who will work with them to produce an outstanding conference proposal for the upcoming SMT conference.

At this time, we invite participants—both advisees (women) and advisors (women and men)—to join our program in preparation for next year’s meeting in Vancouver.

Please contact me as soon as possible if you would like to participate in this program, either as an advisor or advisee. Advisees must request an advisor before December 8; requests will be filled in the order they are received.  Please include the following information:

  • a brief description of your proposal topic (2–3 sentences);
  • your institutional affiliation;
  • the name(s) of any advisors with whom you’ve previously worked, if you’ve participated in the program before.

I hope to hear from many of you soon!


Sara Bakker
CSW Conference Proposal Advising Program Coordinator
Lecturer in Music Theory, Utah State University

“Mind the Gap!” The CSW Abroad

July 8, 2015 marked a highlight in the history of the CSW as we crossed the pond to lead the Society for Music Analysis conference’s opening plenary session at Keele University in England. Entitled “Mind the Gap: Women in the Field of Music Analysis,” our session explored such topics as the progress of women through the (leaky) academic pipeline from undergraduate to professorial levels in the UK (Anne Hyland, Manchester University), intersections of gender and interdisciplinarity (Stefanie Acevedo, Yale University), the role of the SMT CSW in improving the status of women in music theory (Laurel Parsons, CSW Chair), and the outstanding contributions of women analysts and theorists to the field (Amanda Bayley, Bath Spa University). Renowned music theorist Janet Schmalfeldt (Tufts University) ended the panel with an eloquent and rousing response. A lively audience discussion ensued, and over the course of the conference many attendees expressed appreciation to the panel for bringing to their attention both the shocking realities many women still experience in the field. Many also shared a new determination to work toward improvements in the status of women in their own professional environments, using the work of the CSW as an example. The SMA itself is committed to addressing gender imbalance, and toward this end its recent appointments to its editorial board were 50/50 female-male.

This plenary session was the brainchild of the SMA’s Nicholas Reyland (Keele University) who invited me to put the panel together. As conference organizer, Nick cleverly placed us at the beginning of the program in a room through which every conference attendee had to pass to get out of the registration and free breakfast room. There was no escaping us! Many thanks to Nick for his invitation and his warm hospitality at the conference, and to both the SMA and SMT for their assistance with travel costs.

Submitted by

Laurel Parsons, Past Chair, CSW