High School Music Groups Grapple With Gender Gap - Pacific Standard

High School Music Groups Grapple With Gender Gap

New research finds consistently higher numbers of girls compared to boys in high school bands, orchestras, and choirs.
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(Photo: Shi Yali/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Shi Yali/Shutterstock)

By now there is ample evidence of the many benefits of music education. But newly published research points to a large gender disparity in terms of who is getting those advantages.

Tracking student participation in high-school ensembles, University of Maryland researcher Kenneth Elpus finds a consistent pattern in which females outnumber males—not only in choirs, but also in bands and orchestras.

“This trend has been fairly stable for the past three decades,” he reports in the journal Music Education Research.

Elpus examined data from 10 separate, nationally representative High School Transcript Studies, beginning with the class of 1982, and concluding with the class of 2009. For each, he noted the number of students who received credit for at least one unit of a course identified as a choir, band, or orchestra. (Instrumental jazz ensembles were listed under “bands;” vocal jazz groups were included under “choirs.”)

"Female students take more rigorous high school science, technology, math, and English courses than do their male peers." Perhaps music is another subject where they are, on average, more engaged, and more ambitious, than teenage boys.

Confirming previous research, he found “an extreme imbalance between male and female enrollment” in high school choirs. “Across all 10 cohorts,” he writes, “the ratio of females to males enrolled in choral music ensembles remains remarkably stable at roughly 70 percent female to 30 percent male.”

More surprisingly, he found girls also outnumber boys in high school bands and orchestras, although the ratio is less pronounced than in choirs. “Females outnumber males among band students in every cohort except for the class of 2009,” he reports.

Like bands, the gender make-up of high school orchestras varied from year to year, but female players were consistently in the majority. “Across all time periods studied,” Elpus writes, “the average estimate is 63.67 percent female to 36.33 percent male.”

While noting the obvious need to find ways to entice more male students into music ensembles—particularly choirs—the study draws no conclusions on why girls are so strongly over-represented.

“Female students take more rigorous high school science, technology, math, and English courses than do their male peers,” Elpus notes. Perhaps music is another subject where they are, on average, more engaged, and more ambitious, than teenage boys.

In any event, his findings point to a fascinating paradox.

“The makeup of instrumental music students has been more heavily weighted towards females,” he writes, “yet those students who pursue, or find the most success, in classical instrumental music or instrumental music education as a profession tend to be male.”

Do those young female violinists and cellists have more interests, and more potential career paths, than their male counterparts? Or is something stopping them from growing into professional musicians? Surely the question is worth exploring.

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