Closing the Gender Gap: The Value of Women as Role Models1

S. Kay Hoke

It has been fashionable during the past decade to speak of closing the gender gap.2 The phrase, closing the gender gap, appears progressive, implying movement toward equity in the workplace. And equity nearly always refers to numbers—levels of compensation and benefits; numbers hired, tenured, promoted, moved into administration. The problem, of course, is that equity in numbers does not assume equality. Equal roles for women in society have never been the norm. The belief that woman's proper sphere is private and domestic is sanctioned by centuries of custom and tradition.3 Men still create public policy and shape the institutions that define and govern our culture. Thus the professions continue to ask of those who would succeed in them long hours, single-minded concentration, a healthy desire to compete, a strong desire for power and independence, and a well-nourished ego. This male pattern for professional success does not fit the realities of many, if not most, women's lives.

Historically women have been barred from intellectual pursuits because of biological differences. In order to establish ourselves in the professions we have had to shed a centuries-old image of woman as a creature with a highly developed womb and an inferior brain, the nurturer whose public life was mainly restricted to performing good works. Is it, then, any wonder that until the latter decades of the 20th century (with the principal exception of the World War II years) women felt compelled to choose between the life and the work? No longer forced to choose between the two, the reality for women nonetheless is that attitudes, society, and institutions have not changed sufficiently to make the combination of a rich private life, which may include motherhood, and a meaningful career workable. The bifurcation most women must bridge between career and domesticity is both overwhelming and obsessive. If we truly intend to overcome obstacles and close gaps, we must, in Amelie Oksenberg Rorty's words, work toward "a profound and revisionary analysis of our social and economic priorities and the distribution of labor and esteem that these priorities demand" (Daniels and Ruddick 1977:52-53). This task of matching the realities of life and work to individuals, female and male, requires far more than equal pay and greater sharing of the responsibilities of child-rearing and housework. We must use our ingenuity to redefine professional patterns and the very meaning of success so that careers will be fashioned to fit individuals and the complementary contributions they bring to the world of work rather than the other way around.

The goal of redefining patterns and adopting a new ideology of work in the public sphere is unlikely to happen as soon as it should; therefore, the issue I should like to address is what we in higher education can do to help other women—students, younger colleagues, and peers—bridge the gender gap in the meantime, before the revolution comes. The strategies I wish to suggest are not original; they are drawn from the good thinking of many other women and laid out here in a way that intends they be put to immediate use.4

It is an inescapable fact of life that women in academe serve as role models for their students. We are highly visible simply because our numbers, particularly at the higher ranks and in administration, are still few (only 25% at my university as a whole and 17% in the College of Fine Arts in full-time positions). How we choose to take advantage of this visibility is an issue of overwhelming importance since the literature emphasizes that like men, women desire and need the support of members of their own sex. By choosing to become dynamic role models, by making the choice to effect positive change for individual women at our home institutions and for women as a group through work in professional organizations such as The College Music Society, we can do immeasurable good.

A combination of factors—personal, environmental, and familial—are known to shape and foster the ambitions and sustain the progress of women who break the traditional mold by moving or aspiring to move into the professions.5 Of these, I have chosen four that are especially important for us to take into account.

The first is that women should take themselves seriously. Probably the single most effective way to encourage other women to take themselves seriously is to let them know through words and actions that we take them seriously, as seriously as we take men! Although important at any stage in one's education, the message is critical in the early undergraduate years when professional ambition often has its best opportunity to form. A potent way to make the message heard is to abandon the "exceptional woman" syndrome. This is not to deny that throughout history there have been exceptional women who made their way in the public sphere before the resurgence of the women's movement of the 1960s. But we can make a shift in emphasis from the singularity of their accomplishments to an examination of the circumstances that aided them in getting ahead. Most, if not all, have been supported intellectually, spiritually, and materially by family, teachers, mentors, benefactors; often they were born or came of age at a propitious time; sometimes they were simply lucky. As Adrienne Rich wisely observes: "Women's art and thought and action will continue to be seen as deviant, its true meaning distorted or buried, as long as women's work can be dismissed as `exceptional,' an interesting footnote to the major texts" (Daniels and Ruddick 1977:xxiii).

A second is realizing that education is a continuous process, and that it includes a lifetime of self-definition. At the undergraduate level the general and specialist components of education have yet to become broad enough to prepare women for the numerous roles they might face as professional, wife, mother, activist, volunteer. Since men have shaped and controlled bodies of knowledge, their perspectives and values are deeply embedded in the disciplines of the academy. It is essential that we work more vigorously to incorporate the innovative insights of women's and gender studies into curricula. Even in 1991, the subject of women in most courses is treated as what Aisenberg and Harrington refer to as "fringe matter" (Aisenberg and Harrington 1977:209). Carol Robertson strongly points out: "Male dominance in the scholarship of our own culture still relegates the woman's view and subject matter to a secondary and sometimes threatening threshold" (Robertson 1987:226). One need only peruse the standard music history and appreciation texts and general anthologies of music to be entirely convinced how peripheral women are. Some mention not a single woman as having contributed to the history of music! Others, curiously, treat only a few, usually the same few, from text to text. It is true that the converted will find ways to supplement existing materials with specialist works, but the educational gains for women can only be considered slight until a reasonable treatment of women's contributions and perspectives becomes established as the norm in our pedagogy and in the published materials we use. Obvious corrective measures are to revise and expand our own course offerings and volunteer to serve on generalist and specialist curriculum committees. Others are to register our complaints about the current standard text offerings to publishers' representatives, and write letters to authors and editors of the most widely used texts. And there is the radical and potentially most potent option of refusing to use standard texts in music history courses for a designated period of time until adequate revision takes place. We can also, as some CMS members have admirably shown, write new texts and reference works that make valuable information about women widely accessible.6 In addition we can work to transform co-education to provide the space and time for women (and men) to "bond with members of their own sex and enjoy the group affinities that gender strengthens" (Aisenberg and Harrington 1988: 209). When women's issues become a part of the curriculum, the excitement of students and scholar-teachers about the subject matter can serve to create a climate for productive scholarship. The questions we begin to pose in our investigations of women frequently lead us to discover innovative points of view on traditional materials of study as well.

The third is being enough of a maverick to be little influenced by the seductive, false, negative, and restrictive messages about women in the popular culture propagated through advertising, television, and movies. We should attempt to create an environment for our students that counteracts these messages. One alluring but ultimately destructive image, particularly because it preys upon women attempting or hoping to combine career and motherhood, is aptly described by Arlie Hochschild.

She is not the same woman in each magazine advertisement, but she is the same idea. She has that working-mother look as she strides forward, briefcase in one hand, smiling child in the other. Literally and figuratively, she is moving ahead. Her hair, if long, tosses behind her; if it is short, it sweeps back at the sides, suggesting mobility and progress. There is nothing shy or passive about her. She is confident, active, "liberated." She wears a dark tailored suit, but with a silk bow or colorful frill that says, "I'm really feminine underneath." She has made it in a man's world without sacrificing her femininity. And she has done this on her own. By some personal miracle,...she has managed to combine what 150 years of industrialization have split wide apart—child and job, frill and suit, female culture and male (Hochschild 1989:1).

Most of us can dispel this image simply by being who we are; however, many of us cannot deny wanting to appear in control of every aspect of our lives in front of students and colleagues. It takes courage to be honest about the messy areas of one's life. Perhaps we fear we will lose the respect of others if we reveal our less than perfect natures. I think, rather, that we do a far greater disservice by denying students and junior colleagues the benefit of our experience.

And fourth, possessing an awareness and appreciation for many kinds of achievement. One way of helping our students appreciate the array of areas in which humans can make meaningful contributions to society is not to regard conventional paths, e.g. teaching, as inferior to more specialized paths in the professions. By bringing them into periodic contact with people who love and are good at their work, we can convey the crucial message that finding work one loves is ultimately what counts.

The forms of support which can be derived from role models might vary from formal to informal, impersonal to personal. Both formal structures—committees, caucuses, networks, advising, institutes, workshops, seminars, study groups—and informal ones—discussion groups, open meetings, social occasions, shop talk in the halls—are valuable and can be instituted locally or through professional organizations. Formal structures offer women the opportunity to learn skills (proposal writing, interviewing techniques, etc.) and exchange information (recent research findings, where to apply for grants, etc.) Informal structures offer, among other things, the opportunity for women to become "socialized" into the profession, to learn the prudent considerations one takes into account, e.g. multi-year planning when building a career.

Clearly, the Chanticleer and Cavani Quartets recognize the intrinsic value of education in the promulgation of their art. It is my opinion that artists and arts professionals must begin to view arts education as an investment in the future and not merely an activity in which to be engaged for funding purposes. Given the virtual lack of quality arts education in the schools and the magnanimity of the competing forces (videos, pop music, etc.) we must take the lead, if the traditional arts are to survive. This means not only expanding our participation in the educational process but also allowing ourselves, as artists, to be educated.

The College Music Society has long promoted work on women's issues, mainly through the work of its Committee on the Status of Women established in 1972. But there is even more good work the Society could do. One is to create a clearinghouse to match potential advisors (mentors) with protegèes based on areas of specialization, research and performance interests, geographical location, or concern for special population groups. Another is to resurrect and expand the column on women's issues formerly written by Adrienne Fried Block for the Newsletter. In addition to serving as a kind of bulletin board for information about concerts, conferences, dissertations, and current research on women in music, it might also contain reviews of recent publications; serve as a forum for people who want to contribute ideas on teaching, scholarship, performance, and advising; or function as a kind of "paper mentor, " offering insider information on how to advance in a given discipline.7 Clearly other things could be done as well; I invite all of you to make your ideas known to the Committee on the Status of Women.

There is a certain urgency to living in the final decade of a century that has overwhelmed us with rapid change. Yet when we look at women's issues we see that many meaningful changes—the humanization of bodies of knowledge, new norms for ourselves and for our work, the formulation of adequate social and economic policies—are inching along at a snail's pace. As role models for the next generation of women in music, let us continue to seek imaginative ways to refashion outdated patterns and to establish habits of mind that respect the balance between self and other.


Aisenberg, Nadya and Harrington, Mona. Women of Academe: Outsiders in the Sacred Grove. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.

Briscoe, James R., ed. Historical Anthology of Music by Women. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Chafe, William H. The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic, and Political Roles, 1920-1970. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Daniels, Pamela and Ruddick, Sara, eds. Working It Out: 23 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk About Their Lives and Work. New York: Pantheon, 1977.

Hochschild, Arlie. The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home. New York: Viking Press, 1989.

Koskoff, Ellen, ed. Women and Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Pendle, Karin, ed. Women in Music: A History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Reich, Nancy B., ed. Women's Studies/Women's Status. CMS Report No. 5. Boulder, Colorado: The College Music Society, 1988.

Robertson, Carol E. "Power and Gender in the Musical Experiences of Women." In Women and Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective, ed. Ellen Koskoff, 225-244. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Rothman, Sheila M. Woman's Proper Place: A History of Changing Ideals and Practices, 1870 to the Present. New York: Basic, 1978.

Sandler, Bernice. "Academic Mentoring for Women Students and Faculty: A NewLook at an Old Way to Get Ahead," issued by the Project on the Status and Education of Women, directed by Bernice Sandler for the Association of American Colleges, 1983.

Solomon, Barbara Miller. In the Company of Educated Women. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.


1An early version of this paper was delivered during the Annual Meeting of the College Music Society on October 28, 1990 in Washington, D.C. as part of the panel Toward the End of a Century: Cross-Cultural and Minority Perspectives.

2It is important to make the distinction between gender and sex. Sex (female/male) is a biological category. The most important biological differences between females and males allow women to bear and nurture children. Gender (feminine/masculine) is a socially constructed category reflecting arrangements kept up between women and men based on culture-specific ideologies and on prestige systems that bestow value to one gender over the other. For a more detailed and interesting perspective on gender issues and music see Koskoff, Women and Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective.

3This private sphere where women have made their contributions is not merely distinct but also less powerful than the public sphere inhabited by men. See Chafe, The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic, and Political Roles, 1920-1970 and Rothman, Woman's Proper Place: A History of Changing Ideals and Practices, 1870 to the Present for a good understanding of the implications the separation of spheres has had on the formulation of American social policy.

4Please consult the list of references for works offering additional information and background material on a variety of women's issues.

5Solomon's In the Company of Educated Women is particularly informative. She treats four themes concerning women and higher education, and for each one explores how women's aspirations have interacted with other forces in both helping and hindering them as they pursue higher learning and a life beyond. Aisenberg and Harrington's chapter, "Transformation," discusses the process by which women become professionals.

6Prominent among these contributions are CMS Report No. 5 (1988), edited by Nancy Reich, an annotated bibliography of recent writings on women in music, plus a videography of tapes dealing with women in music and an updated statistical report on the status of women in college teaching; The Historical Anthology of Music by Women (1987), edited by James Briscoe; and the recently published Women in Music: A History, edited by Karin Pendle.

7A valuable source of practical materials and information that is not discipline specific is the Project on the Status and Education of Women in Washington, D.C.