Gender Associations & Discrepancies: What’s A Teacher To Do?

| June 19, 2010

The following post was written for, a GREAT resource, and talks about work I’ve done with Dr. Abeles.

In May I went to see a concert in a renowned space in one of the biggest cities in the United States that was well-attended by both men and women and featured no female musicians. As a female jazz player, I was incredibly disheartened to see that there were no women whatsoever in the Lincoln center Jazz Orchestra and was reminded of how when I was starting out in jazz band, I frequently felt uncomfortable and like I needed to constantly prove myself just because I was a girl playing bass.

These kinds of discrepancies and uncomfortable feelings aren’t solely limited to the genre of jazz and are frequently found in all musics. Many musical genres and cultures have histories that feature men as prominent composers and instrumentalists (O’Neill, 1997). Koza’s 1993 analysis of music education textbooks support this, with the results suggesting that despite the “missing males” problem that is so well-known (not to say that it should be disregarded), female music students in K-12 education might just be found wanting for role models not only directly in the classroom, but indirectly in textbooks they read and concerts they see. Indeed, a sampling of professional musicians indicates that most of these quality players are men. This is despite the fact that female music students are the majority in the formative years of formal music education (Tanur & Zervoudakes, 1994) and that music itself is considered to be a female subject (Boldizar, as cited in O’Neill, 1997).

So how do we get from point A to B?
Gender associations for music instruments do exist (Dr. Abeles at Teachers College, Columbia University has done a lot of work on this topic, among others) and are still persisting over time, though the degree of associations is lessening (Delzell & Leppla, along with Abeles, have done recent studies that demonstrate this).
While researchers have suggested that girls feel more freedom than boys in choosing non-stereotypical music instruments (Tanur & Zervoudakes, 1994), analysis of programs over the years indicates that both male and female students still are not opting for these instruments in significant numbers.
During K-12 education women represent at least half of the students involved in ensembles (Tanur & Zervoudakes, 1994), so where are they going?

First, the previously-mentioned lack of musical role models may make some female music students feel as though there is not a place for them in the field of music. Psychologists like Vygotsky and Bandura, among others, have emphasized the role of peer or older individuals with a greater amount of skill or intelligence in not only the learning process but also in identity formation. If a female music student sees a lack of female professional musicians, she may feel as though it might not be worth pursuing.

Second, bullying can be a problem. Researchers have demonstrated that gender associations are prevalent to the point where children can identify which instruments a hypothetical male and female student are most likely to play (Delzell & Leppla, 1992), suggesting that students in any phase of their K-12 education will easily recognize ‘outliers,’ students who play gender-nonstereotypical instruments. This, obviously, can be a problem for both the discouraged student and the teacher who wants to help.

How should we as pre- and in-service music educators deal with this? Researchers like Johnson and Stewart, among others, suggest that teachers are attempting to not make assignments based on race and gender and can even try to lessen the strength of students’ gender associations by presenting them with gender-nonstereotypical role models (one study detailed an ‘intervention’ procedure in which students were presented with a concert of such a nature (e.g., Harrison and O’Neill’s 2000 study)). I personally think that the latter is incredibly important for us to keep in mind.

As I’ve stated earlier, role models for students can play a significant role in the way that they think of themselves as musicians and whether they feel comfortable in our programs. Not only can female students feel more comfortable in K-12 music if they are exposed to more significant and successful female musicians and composers, but both female and male students playing gender-nonstereotypical instruments can increase their confidence. Incorporating more creativity in the curriculum in the form of composition and improvisation can also help all students, regardless of their instrument choice, build confidence and competency on their instrument.

Younger students can begin to be directly involved in musicmaking at an early age through composition in large groups or with the entire class, while older students can develop musical independence by working in smaller groups or by themselves. Activities like collective improvisation can help students begin to experiment creatively without feeling singled out, and a creative process can be incorporated into many classroom activities such as the teaching of musical literature (e.g., using musical elements from the literature being studied as a jumping off point for composition or improvisation) or an ensemble’s warm-up (e.g., ornamentation/improvisation during an initial run-through of a piece or section). At Teachers College, Columbia University, many of my classes incorporate experiences like this and it truly is nothing like I’ve experienced in both my K-12 and undergraduate music education (if you want specific examples, feel free to ask me!), so I can say firsthand that it is a great way to really dive into and experience music and musical repertoire for what it is and get a better understanding of aural skills, music history, and music theory.

Obviously, for any of these experiences or processes to be successful in the classroom, the teacher needs to establish a feeling of safety, and I think that this is the most important thing that we pre and in-service teachers can do, not just for students who feel like they are left out of a traditional K-12 music education program but also for those who feel more at home. Getting involved in these kinds of experiences in a safe place can make a difference to a student with low musical self-esteem, but ultimately it is really up to the teacher to try and reach every student equally instead of just teaching to those the traditional musical curriculum has always been able to reach. My continued participation in music to this day is one example of a student who had been implicitly discouraged, more so by peers than by educators, fortunately, from continuing in a musical passion, and I am very excited to work in K-12 education and reach out to students who may feel like I did once before. Hopefully you can do your part as well.

Suggested Reading/References
Abeles, H. F. & Porter, S. Y. (1978). The sex-stereotyping of musical instruments. Journal of Research in Music Education, 26 (2), 65-75.
Delzell, J. K. & Leppla, D. A. (1992). Gender association of musical instruments and preferences of fourth-grade students for selected instruments. Journal of Research in Music Education, 40 (2), 93-103.
Koza, J. E. (1993). The “missing males” and other gender issues in music education: Evidence from the “Music Supervisors’ Journal,” 1914-1924.Journal of Research in Music Education, 41 (3), 212-232.
Koza, J. E. (1994). Females in 1988 middle school music textbooks: An analysis of illustrations. Journal of Research in Music Education, 42 (2), 145-171.
O’Neill, S. A. (1997). Gender and music. In D. J. Hargreaves & A.C. North (Eds.), The Social Psychology of Music (pp. 46-63). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sinsabaugh, K. (2005). Understanding Students Who Cross Over Gender Stereotypes In Musical Instrument Selection. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York.
Tanur, J. M. & Zervoudakes, J. (1994). Gender and musical instruments: Winds of change? Journal of Research in Music Education, 42, 58-67.