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.

Not-All-Male Panels: Tips for Conference Organizers

My first post on all-male panels ( answered a reader’s question about how he should respond to an invitation to chair an all-male panel at this year’s SMT Annual Meeting in St. Louis. But what about future, not-necessarily-SMT conferences where speakers have not yet been invited? If you’re organizing a music theory conference yourself, how can you ensure the inclusion of women among invited speakers in a field where men outnumber women 2-to-1?

Here are some excellent tips from Feminist Philosophers (a sister or perhaps mother blog to What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy?, the inspiration for our CSW site). The author(s) offer these suggestions to conference organizers, but also anthology editors and “anyone else who is putting together a collection of philosophers and finding they’re all male:”

“So, you’re trying to think of people to invite to your conference, and all the ones who come to mind are male. Well, there was one woman but she said she was too busy. You’ve read (perhaps here, perhaps elsewhere) about the harms this can do in terms of implicit bias and stereotype threat. So you’d like to avoid an all-male conference. How might you do this?
What follows are some suggestions:
1. Realise that the first names you think of are overwhelmingly likely to be male. This is exactly what work on implicit bias would predict. So if you want some female names, you’ll need to work a little harder. You might ask around a bit. Or you might look at the papers cited by some of the men you’ve thought of to find some women who work in the area. Neither of these is ideal, though, since the same biases will make it harder for others to think of women, or to remember to cite them. Perhaps a better idea is to search for your topic on [IIMP/Music Index/RILM], and see what women have written on it.
2. Studies have shown that women often need to have done a lot more to be considered successful than men do. There’s a good chance that you’re only thinking of super-famous women, while considering much less famous men. That is, you may well be setting the bar higher for women. So consider inviting some less famous women than those you first thought of. (This will also help redress injustice, since in many cases implicit bias will have been involved in these women being less famous.)
3. Don’t wait till the last minute to invite women.
4. If there really are not that many women in your field, perhaps consult with them first about dates. You have to ask someone first, so why not them?
5. Women are often at lower-prestige institutions, in lower ranked jobs. This means they’re likely to have less access to funds. (In a recent poll, we found that lack of funds was the top reason women declined invitations.) One way to make it more possible for women to attend would be to prioritise funding for those with less resources to draw upon. The super-famous often have super-big research accounts too. So go ahead and ask if they can self-fund. (If they’re offended by the question, they’re arseholes and you don’t want them at your conference.
6. Offer childcare at your conference. It’s not as hard as you think. [The CSW has found it’s not easy, either, but that’s a topic for another post. SMT does offer childcare grants to conference attendees, though; see]”

These tips are part of FP’s “Gendered Conference Campaign,” and–especially if you’ve been asking yourself “what’s the harm in having an all-male panels, anyway?”–I highly recommend reading their page explaining the reasons behind this campaign:

Finally, how could I not leave you with some music? Here’s a link to the Gendered Conference Campaign’s own theme song! (I think given our field, we should have a contest to come up with our own!)

Laurel Parsons, CSW Chair

All-Male Panels at SMT 2015

Share Your Stories” (“SYS”) is a place where readers can submit stories of their own experiences with the assurance that readers won’t be able to comment on those experiences. That’s the rule, and it’s not going to change. However, the other day a male theorist wrote in asking for advice on how to respond to an invitation to chair an all-male panel at the upcoming SMT conference. His question prompted my last entry about how to post a question, because I realized looking over the blog that we hadn’t yet set up an obvious way for people to do that if they’re asking something relatively simple that might be of interest to a lot of readers, and they actually want to get an answer or start a conversation about it. Now that I’ve set up a contact page where you can send in your questions or blog post ideas, I want to address the question he’s raised. From now on, please send questions of this kind via our “Contact Us” page rather than SYS.

(Please go here to see the original Shared Story post.) So let’s get to the question of all-male panels. If a male theorist wants to support the increased presence of women on SMT sessions, what’s the best way of responding to a request for him to chair an all-male panel? (If you’re new to this issue, see the link at the bottom of the page to a good article in the Guardian a couple of years ago.) Personally, here’s my take on it, considering only the upcoming SMT conference in St. Louis — not conferences in general.

I would say that it depends on who’s organizing the session: has the Program Committee put it together from all the year’s accepted proposals, or is it an invited or volunteer panel set up independently by one of the interest groups? If it’s the Program Committee (“PC”), logistically it may be difficult if not impossible to ensure there is a woman presenting a paper at each and every regular session. This year, I’m told women submitted only about 25% of proposals to SMT (we’re still waiting for data on the acceptance rate, but in recent years it’s tended to match the submission rate). Moreover, there may have been no women at all submitting papers on a particular topic (or no men on another).

The PC — which itself has a much greater representation of women at 50% than the SMT as a whole — has more control over gender balance among session chairs. This year’s PC Chair, Joti Rockwell, has told me that so far women represent about 40% of St. Louis chairs (they won’t have final numbers until all invitations have been issued and responded to), well over their rate of membership in the Society. (He also noted that invitations to male chairs may well have been proposed by women in the first place, given the gender balance within the PC.)

Given all these constraints, and how close we are now to the conference, declining the invitation to a session organized by the PC because there are no women on that particular panel would almost certainly make no difference in the gender balance among the speakers. I would recommend asking why there are no women on the panel, and depending on how you feel about their answer, either accepting it having at least raised the issue, or declining it while also assisting the PC by recommending one or two women whom they might invite instead.

But what if the session is organized by one of the Society’s interest groups, where sessions may be organized more casually, either by invitation or by people volunteering to speak rather than blind review of proposals in answer to a CFP? I think wherever it’s possible in the remaining time between now and the conference, challenging the organizers to improve the gender balance on their panel is the way to go, whether that means suggesting additional women speakers, or declining to chair and recommending one or two women whom they could invite. Others may have different suggestions on how to approach this, and please note that these are my personal opinions and not necessarily those of the CSW — I’ll let individual members offer their own thoughts if they wish. Thanks to our reader for bringing this important issue up for discussion! Laurel Parsons, CSW Chair

REMINDER: CSW Call for Proposals Deadline is Saturday, January 3!

The Committee on the Status of Women’s session for the 2015 SMT Annual Meeting in St. Louis will focus on feminist approaches to music theory and analysis. The Committee invites proposals for short (15-minute) papers on the following topics: feminist critiques of music theory methodology or terminology; new or modified analytical methodologies informed by feminist theory; feminist analyses of particular works derived from existing methodological paradigms. Work should not already have been published or accepted by a peer-reviewed journal.

Proposals must be submitted to Laurel Parsons, CSW Chair, at no later than January 3, 2015. Please include in your submission:

  • Two versions of the proposal in separate files, one anonymous and the other including the author’s name, institutional affiliation (if any), and contact information. Proposals should be approximately 300-500 words.
  •  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. Please note that SMT normally cannot provide Internet access for presentations.

CSW Events at SMT Milwaukee 2014

At the Milwaukee conference this coming October, the CSW will present two events open to all SMT and AMS members:

1) Friday, November 7, 8:00-11:00 p.m: Our evening session this year, “Negotiation and Self-Advocacy Skills for Women,” follows up on concerns discussed at last year’s CSW Brown Bag Lunch. In the first part of the evening, Rachel Lumsden (University of Oklahoma) and Stefanie Acevedo (Yale University) will speak on the impact of gender and race on academic negotiation, followed by Don Gibson (Florida State University) and Eileen M. Hayes (Towson University) on negotiation from the perspective of administrators; Áine Heneghan (University of Michigan) on her perspective as a faculty member who has been successful in negotiating on her own behalf, and Joel Phillips (Rider University) on the role of faculty unions in negotiation. Following a short break, the second half of the evening will be devoted to a speed negotiation session, where audience members will have a short time to rotate through several senior administrators, pitch a single request, and receive feedback from each of the administrators on how to improve their pitch. The roster of administrators so far includes speakers Don Gibson and Joel Phillips, Brenda Ravenscroft (Queen’s University), and Joseph N. Straus (Graduate Center, City University of New York).

If you would like to participate in the speed negotiation session, please pre-register by sending your request to the CSW Chair at While we will attempt to accommodate as many drop-in participants as possible, by pre-registering as soon as possible you will help us to ensure that we have a sufficient number of mentors to meet the demand, and no one needs to be turned away.

2) Saturday, November 8, 12:15-1:45: All SMT members are welcome to join us for the Annual CSW Brown Bag Lunch. This valuable session allows us to share with you our activities over the past year and ideas for the next, but most importantly, it allows us to hear from you about the issues you feel are most pressing for women in SMT, so that we can plan future activities and resources accordingly.  These are always very lively discussions, so bring your sandwiches and your ideas!


2013 Conference Report

The CSW was active at the 2013 Annual Meeting in Charlotte. Our well-attended special evening session, “Addressing the Gender Imbalance II: A Five-Year Check-up and a Five-Year Plan,” featured short but powerful presentations by Brenda Ravenscroft, Jennifer Bain, Severine Neff, Poundie Burstein, and Jane Piper Clendinning, followed by lively breakout discussions that generated many excellent ideas. Attendance at our annual Brown Bag lunch was overflowing, and generated even more ideas. Over the next few months, we will be incorporating your contributions into a new five-year plan, with specific targets to achieve and actions to complete by 2018.

We have begun researching childcare possibilities for the Annual Meeting in Milwaukee. It will be crucial for us to have an estimate of how many members will need childcare, so if you anticipate needing childcare next year, please contact Laurel Parsons (laureljparsons[a] with the number and ages of children, and approximately how many days/hours you’d likely need this service. We look forward to seeing you all in Milwaukee in November!