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The Status of Women

In German Orchestras:

A Report  Based on Practical Experience

by Abbie Conant


As published in VivaVoce (Nr. 48, December 1998.)


Also published by the Ministerium für Arbeit, Stoziales und Stadtentwicklung, Kultur und Sport des Lands Nordrhein-Westfalen.



German Version


I would like to begin by thanking the LandesMusikRat for inviting me to be a guest speaker.  Various institutions in Nordheim-Westfalen have shown much support in my struggles against sexism in orchestras, and I appreciate it greatly.


I am going to speak mostly about my personal experiences in the Munich Philharmonic. They illustrate what women in orchestras can experience, and support the suggestions I will make for ending sexism in these ensembles.


Lets begin with some comparisons between Europe and the United States, that help us gain some perspective.  European women are less present in the work place than in the United States. The overall representation of women in the  European workforce is 41%, compared to 50% in the United States.  European women represent only 1% of the corporate executive boards, while in the United States they fill 10% of the seats.[1]

Comparative employment statistics in top European and U.S. orchestras follow similar patterns.  Here is the representation of women in four countries including former East and West Germany[2]:




United Kingdom


West Germany


East Germany





Representation in Major US orchestras                     25%

Representation in Major German orchestras            11%


The representation of women in Germany’s major orchestras is is only 11%.  It is also notable that many Central European orchestras have only have a  token representation of women, as shown in this chart:[3]





% of Women

Vienna Philharmonic




Vienna Symphony Orchestra




Czech Philharmonic




Staatskapelle Dresden




Berlin Philharmonic[4]




Dresdener Philharmonie




Gewandhaus Leipzig





These orchestras are clearly misogynistic.  The 16% representation of women in German orchestras is not even half of what it is in the United States and in several other European countries.


These statistics are from 1994 and might have changed slightly since then, but the relative proportions remain similar. The statistics given here are more trustworthy than those provided by the union, because they were collected by politically independent researchers at the University of Munich and Harvard University, who are not concerned with the orchestra’s public relations. 


It is notable that both socially progressive East Germany and highly conservative Austria have exactly the same low representation of women in their orchestras: 16%. Communist East Germany had a very strong and aggressive Frauenpolitik, which resulted in women representing 50% of the workforce.  Nevertheless, women still represent only 16% of its orchestral membership—exactly the same percentage as highly traditional Austria. 


This illustrates that the symphony orchestra’s traditions of misogyny are a very strong and specific social force, that override the tendencies of national gender culture.[5] Far from leading the way, gender integration in orchestras lags behind the progress being made in the rest of society.  Women are only about one third as present in German orchestras as in the work force as a whole.  And in Germany’s major orchestras they are only about one fourth as present.


European governments have generally not taken the same activist stance toward gender and racial integration that is found in the United States.[5]  There are fewer equal opportunity or affirmative action programs in place.  Germany tried to institute such programs about ten years ago, but they were immediately challenged in court.  This held them in limbo for the last decade.  It was only last summer that the European Community Court overturned the German courts, and ruled that employers can legally favor women, if their qualifications are equal to male candidates.  The effects of this ruling will be limited, however, because many States in Germany do not have effective equal opportunity laws.   


In the United States it is illegal for most private organizations to discriminate.  The US Supreme Court reasoned that many forms of business arrangements are made in private clubs, and that the exclusion of women and minorities from them is an unfair disadvantage.  In the European Common Market, however, it is legal for private organizations to discriminate.  This has allowed nominally private orchestras such as the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics to hinder, or forbid membership to women. 


This lax attitude carries over to public institutions as well.  The Vienna State Opera is owned and operated by the Austrian Federal government, but its orchestra forbade membership to women until last year.  No one even mentioned that the Austrian government was thus breaking discrimination laws it was sworn to uphold. This was changed only when the International Alliance for Women in Music initiated protests at the Vienna Philharmonic’s concerts in Carnegie Hall, and caused one of the largest scandals in the Austrian music world since the Second World War.  Here in Germany, where the 16% representation of women in orchestras is identical to Austria’s, these protests were largely ignored, in spite of the wide coverage they received in many other countries.[7]


I did not know anything about the status of women in German orchestras when I arrived Germany.  I did not know that I would be struggling through some of the worst experiences of my life, simply because I was a woman trombonist.  I think that many of you might already know something about my tribulations in the Munich Philharmonic. To win the job, I defeated 32 male candidates. Briefly stated, the orchestra didn’t know that I was a woman, and when I stepped from behind the first round screen at the audition, they were quite dismayed.[8]


It was only the second time in the history of the Munich Philharmonic that a screen had been used, and both times they ended up hiring a woman.  In fact, we were the only two women in the wind section.   To this day, eighteen years later, a screen has never again been used, and no more women have been given permanent contracts in the wind section. 


I did not know the hatred I would be confronting in the Munich Philharmonic.  A group of colleagues made it their business to harass me in any way they could.  This sexism did not bother the orchestra’s newly appointed conductor, Sergiu Celibidache.  When he was displeased with the ensemble, he would call us a “ladies’ orchestra”.  He mistreated Anna Sophie Mutter so badly, that she walked out of a rehearsal and canceled her appearance with the Munich Philharmonic.  In a newspaper interview Celibidache referred to her as a “violin playing hen”.[9] Such remarks were endless, and sometimes vulgar, such as this interview comment he made when asked about music critics:


“These people who daily poison everything, should take a pause or write about gynecology.  In that area everyone has a little experience.  But in music they are virgins.  So they will remain, and so they will go into the other world, never fertilized by a single truly experienced tone.”[10]


It is informative that a man who speaks so misogynistically could be given the Bundes Verdienst Kreuz, and be considered something of a Guru.  After my story appeared in the German media, the Munich Philharmonic and the Munich City Government began efforts to cleanse the Maestro’s reputation.  They printed the following statement in the orchestra’s program magazine:


“Sergiu Celibidache is an extraordinary European, so impressive, because in him an unobstructed masculine aura is projected that is not corruptible. And the world is in great need of this, because we live in a fatherless society, a world without standards in that point.  And there he is, such a man, who does not allow himself to be corrupted and quite openly expresses ­especially during concerts--, what is happening inside him, and that is naturally a deeply moving vision.  Listeners and performers can still experience music with him as a 'revelation'.”[11]


These statements about an “incorruptible masculine aura”, “revelations”, and a “fatherless society” are the essence of patriarchy.  This program was printed by the City Government of Munich.


After I had been in the orchestra for nine months, Maestro Ceilibdache demoted me to second trombone, with the declaration, “You know the problem, we need a man for the solo-trombone.”[12]  I had no choice but to turn to the courts.  The discrimination was obvious, but the litigation lasted eleven years, and became one the longest series of Labor Court cases in the history of Bavaria.  The length of this litigation tells us something about the low status of women in both orchestras and German law.


After I regained my position, the City Government of Munich put me in a lower pay group than all my solo wind colleagues.[13]  I didn’t know I was being paid less than all of the men. Colleagues don’t usually go around asking each other what they are being paid. The city lawyers took advantage of my ignorance, and told the courts—in writing—that I was being paid equally.[14]


Later the truth came out.  A young man in the orchestra had recently been named one of the five orchestra chairmen.  He looked into the matter and found I was being paid less than all of the men.  He secretly informed me.  My lawyer reported the situation to the courts.  The judge subpoenaed the city’s personnel minister, and told him that if he did not tell the truth about my pay, he was going to be given up to 15 years in prison.[15]  It wasn’t a routine warning.  I noticed that when the Minister testified his hands were trembling.  For me, this symbolized a turn of events.  For decades since the war, many orchestras, from the Berlin Philharmonic to the Vienna State Opera, had openly discriminated, and no judge had ever spoken out against it. And to make matters even more incomprehensible, many of these orchestras that openly discriminate are heavily subsidized, or even owned and operated by City, State, and Federal governments.


When it became apparent that I was going to regain my position and equal pay, the Munich government and the Munich Philharmonic administration began a campaign to harass me out of my job.  One of the things they did was consistently assign me to play second trombone, even though I held the first chair position.[16]  One day we were on tour in Hong Kong.  A stage hand was sent to tell me that I was once again being assigned to play second in a rehearsal that was beginning in a few minutes.  One of the other solo winds was standing nearby.  He said, “Don’t do it!  None of us have to play second. Why should you?”  I asked the stage hand if someone was sick.  He said no, so I refused to play second. 


You can imagine the flurry of reaction that was set off.  A few minutes later the orchestra’s top administrator marched up to me, accompanied by several orchestra chairmen.  He said, in good old fashioned commando German, “I order you to go on the stage immediately. No discussion.”  I merely said I didn’t want to discuss it either, and left.   


I think several of the men left standing there became almost apoplexic.  They decided to fire me on the spot and put me on the next plane back to Munich.  To straighten out legal matters, they telephoned the union lawyers in Hamburg, but were advised that there was no basis for a dismissal, and that they should avoid an embarrassing situation that could become quite public.  In fact, by harassing me, they were the ones involved in illegal activity. 


Upon my return to Munich, I began to receive courier-delivered letters at home from the City of Munich.  One letter literally wrote that if I didn’t play second trombone, “Steps would be taken.”  I wasn’t quite sure what these…“steps”…might be.  I also received a lot a phone calls with the same threats.  I’m embarrassed to say that I finally became a little afraid to answer my door or telephone.  I won my court cases, but they weren’t going to let mere law stand in their way.  They had other methods.


This may seem incomprehensible.  It is difficult to understand why any cultural institution would be given so much power, that it could cause the government of a major German city to make a mockery of the laws protecting women, laws that very government was sworn to uphold.  But we must not forget the influence orchestras possess within their societies.  Cities like Prague, Berlin, Munich, Leipzig, and Vienna, threat them almost like sacred national icons.


The Vienna Philharmonic gold coin illustrates the influence these orchestras can have.  The coin was first minted by the Austrian national Bank in 1990.  It features the Vienna Philharmonic on its face, and is called the “Philharmoniker.”  In just six years it captured 46% of the world market, and has become the world’s best selling gold coin.  106.5 tones of pure gold have been used to mint “Philharmonikers.”  This represents 5 million coins worth 1.1 billion dollars.  In advertisements, the Austrian Mint notes that the success of this coin is legendary, and due largely to the reputation of the Vienna Philharmonic, whose New Years Concerts are viewed by 1 billion people worldwide.  We gain a sense of the powerful effect these orchestras have on our society when we think of the billions of patrons, and the billions of dollars that surround them.


Until last year, the Vienna Philharmonic openly stated that gender and ethnic uniformity gives it aesthetic superiority.  The following statement was made by the orchestra’s solo flutist during an interview with the WDR:



"From the beginning we have spoken of the special Viennese qualities, of the way music is made here.  The way we make music here is not only a technical ability, but also something that has a lot to do with the soul.  The soul does not let itself be separated from the cultural roots that we have here in central Europe.  And it also doesn’t allow itself to be separated from gender." 


"So if one thinks that the world should function by quota regulations, then it is naturally irritating that we are a group of white skinned male musicians, that perform exclusively the music of white skinned male composers.  It is a racist and sexist irritation.  I believe one must put it that way.  If one establishes superficial egalitarianism, one will lose something very significant.  Therefore, I am convinced that it is worth while to accept this racist and sexist irritation, because something produced by a superficial understanding of human rights would not have the same standards."


In order to fully understand Vienna’s musical traditions, we must presumably accept racist and sexist irritations.  The view is that women would lower the standards.  How unfortunate that Vienna stands as the historical paradigm of orchestral culture.


As a result of these cultural traditions, similar attitudes are also found in German orchestras, even if they have to be a bit more discrete in their sexism.  (I hope no one here is so naïve as to believe that these attitudes magically evaporate somewhere between Salzburg and “Rosenheim.)  During the scandal involving the Berlin Philharmonic’s rejection of Sabine Meyer, the Deutsche Orchester Vereinigung defended the orchestra, saying it had the “democratic right” to choose who it wanted.  It took the orchestra an additional 16 years

 To hire its first woman wind player with a normal contract.  She was hired only two years ago.  We thus learn that their so-called “democracy” is a male prerogative.


When studying the status of women in orchestras, it is important to remember that cultural conditions shape perception.  Our cultural conditioning can lead us to a form of moral myopia by making us oblivious to the symbols and appearance of injustice.  We certainly saw this with the Vienna Philharmonic.  Until protests were initiated at the orchestra’s concerts in new York City, few people in North America even noticed that it was an all-male ensemble.  It just looked normal.  And few people here in Germany even take note of the low percentage of women in orchestras in cities such as Dresden, Leipzig, or Berlin, even thought he low representation is an insult to women and an affront to human dignity.


This simply goes to show how we women are entering the music world by the force of our ability, and the dedication of our advocacy.  We are forcing people to notice4 our abilities and the injustices of discrimination.  The International Alliance for Women in Music brought down the all-male policy of the Vienna Philharmonic, and this persuaded the Czech Philharmonic to open its doors to women as well.  For the first time in history there are no major symphony orchestras that forbid us membership.  Laws are being put in place in Europe that will guarantee equal opportunity for all women, and cultural institutions are being forced to recognize that those laws cannot be ignored.  Through organizations like the IAWM, women are forging international networks of power that allow us to take command of our own lives and formulate our own cultural identity.  If there is anything I have learned form my experiences, it is that through persistence, justice and be achieved.



Five Concrete Suggestions for Improving the

Status of Women in German Symphony Orchestras


1. End Conflicts of Interest Within the DOV Regarding Womens Rights.

The Deutsche Orchester Vereinigung faces inherent conflicts of interests concerning the rights of women.  There are two causes for this.  First, the DOV is obligated to maintain close ties to the Orchester Vorstand, which is often sexist.


Second, the DOV is deeply involved in public relations for the orchestras.  As a result, they publish statistical reports with correct numbers, but organized in ways that dont tell the whole story. The union should provide answers to questions such as these:


1. How many women are in minor vs. the major orchestras?

2. How many are in the tutti strings vs. wind and solo positions?

3. How many women are in solo positions in major orchestras, instrument by      instrument? 

4. How many women are members of the Orchester Vorstand?

5.  How does the status of women in German orchestras compare to other countries?

6.  List all of the orchestra with less than  a 15% representation of women.

7.  How many women are in the leadership of the DOV?


As part of their PR work, the union often tries to blame sexism on maternity leave laws.  These laws actually present very few problems to orchestras. As soon as the maternity rights of women are dismantled, the orchestras will find other reasons to exclude women. 


The DOV must find its own solutions to these conflicts of interest, and in the meantime, women should not be misled by their reports.


2. Institute Gender Blind Audition Procedures.   Photos and the indications of gender should be removed from all orchestral job applications.  A screen should be used for all rounds of the auditions.  Blind audition procedures are used throughout the world without any problems.  There is no reason they should be continued in Germany.


 A study was recently completed in the USA of blind auditions in symphony orchestras.  (It was conducted by researchers at Harvard and Princeton Universities.)  The use of screens increase the chances of US women

in the first round of auditions by 50%, and in the final rounds by 300%.

As a result, the representation of women in US orchestras has risen over the last 20 years from 5 to 36%.  This helps explain why US orchestras have more than twice as many women as German orchestras.  These procedures were instituted by the union.


3.  Prepare Effective Discrimination Laws.  The highest penalty for denying a woman a job due to her gender is one months salary.  And if convicted, the employer still doesnt have to give her the job.  Such legislation says in effect, "It is against the law to discriminate, but if you do, you wont be punished."


The discrimination laws should be given a range of penalties that will prevent employers from scoffing at the rights of women.  They should also obligate the employer to give the woman the job from which she was excluded.


4.  Establish Politically Independent Frauenbeauftragte.   The Frauenbeauftragte should not be politically influenced appointments.  This puts them under the control of political parties that compromise the Frauenbeauftragtes integrity. The Frauen Beauftragte of Munich is also a Chairperson of the Munich SPD.  She refused to openly or actively support me in my struggles against Celibidache, because it could have caused problems for the partys cultural politics.  (Celibidache threatened to leave if anything was done to displease him.)  3 SAT produced a 90 minute documentary film about my experiences in Munich Philharmonic.  The interview with Frau Scheyogg, illustrates my point perfectly.


5.  Empower the Staatsanwalt to Enforce Discrimination Laws.

In the Unitied States, the agencies that protect civil rights are part of the Department of Justice. The enforcement of discrimination laws should be assigned to politically independent professionals in the government who have the power to initiate effective legal action.  If Germany is serious about womens rights, it will obligate its citizens to obey the laws protecting women.


The five suggestions I make are quite reasonable, and have long been used in many other countries.  In Germany they would produce effective and just changes.





[1] “Out of the Typing Pool, Into Career Limbo,” Business Week (April 15, 1996)

[2]  Julia Allmendinger and J. Richard Hackman, “The More, the Better? A Four Nation Study of the Inclusion of Women in Symphony Orchestras,” Social Forces 74/2 (University of North Carolina, December 1995); 423-460.

[3]  The statistics for the Vienna Symphony Orchestra come from: Elena Ostleitner, “Liebe, Lust, Last und Leid”, unpublished report (Austrian Bundesministerium für Unterricht und Kunst, 1995): 62.  The statistics for the East German orchestras come from: Jutta Allmendinger, “Staatskultur und Marktkultur: Ostdeutsche Orchester im Vergleich", unpublished working paper (Report No. 2, Cross-National Study of Symphony Orchestras, Harvard University Business School, 1991):  table 1.  The statistics for the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics were collected by the author.

[4]  This is the number of women with regular full time contracts.

[5]  For a useful discussion of this comparison see: Jutta Almendinger, “Staatskultur und Marktkultur: Ostdeutsche Orchester im Vergleich", unpublished working paper (Report No. 2, Cross-National Study of Symphony Orchestras, Harvard University Business School, 1991)

[6]  For a cross-cultural comparison of the status of women in symphony orchestras, see: William Osborne, “Art Is Just an Excuse: “Gender Bias in International Orchestras,” IAWM Journal (Vol. 2, No. 3, October 1996)

[7]  There were news reports on most of the major US television networks, including a report every 30 minutes on CNN, as well as several reports on NPR.  The protests were reported in most of the world’s major newspapers, and covered by hundreds of pages of articles in Austria.

[8]  For an account of the audition, see: Heinz Höfl, "Aus dem Blech gefallen", Der Spiegel, Nr. 44/45. Jahrgang, October 28, 1991.

[9]  “Celibidachi contra todo”, El Pais, October 11, 1991, p. 39.

[10]  Reissinger, "Vorletzter Akt im Celibidache‑Drama?" Abendzeitung Muenchen, November 14, 1984, p.7.

[11]  Hans Richard Stracke, "Kritiker sind Flaschen mit Sauerkraut‑Ohren", Abendzeitung Munchen, November 10, 1984.

[12]  Jorg Eggebrecht, "Reise ins Herz", Philharmonishe Blatter 91/92 Jahrgang 7, Heft 6, Febuary/March 1992, p.14.

[13]  Beate Berger, "Frauen mussen freundlicher sein", Frankfurter Rundschau am Wochenende, November 30, 1991, Page ZB 5., see also, Final judgement, Conant vs. LH Munchen, AGM 13 Ca 50/91, June 7, 1991, page 6.

[14]  Letter from LH München to the Deutsche Orchestervereinigung dated July 4, 1990; and final judgement Arbeitsgericht München Conant vs. LH München Aktz: 13 Ca 50/91, June 24, 1991.

[15]  Brief, Conant vs. LH München, AGM Aktz: 13 Ca 50/91, January 23, 1991.

[16]  Protocall, Conant vs. LH München, LAG Aktz: 2 (l) Sa 437/91, October 21. 1992, Paqe 2.

[17] The orders to play second trombone and assistant first were often given verbally, but are also confirmed in various letters from the LH München to Conant.  Some examples are dated February 21, 1989, and April 5, 1990, and continue as late as Febuary 9, 1993, March 1, 1993, and March 9, 1993.  A detailed explanation of the discriminatory treatment is given in a letter from her lawyer to the LH Munchen dated Febuary 25, 1993.




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