Breaking the glass ceiling
Why are there so little female composers scoring for film?
Photo by Bruno Massao from Pexels
The topic of gender equality seems to have become ubiquitous. If we look at the film scoring industry, however, this isn't the case. According to The New York Times, "for the top 100 fictional films at the box office every year from 2007 to 2017, only 16 female composers were hired, compared with more than 1,200 men." At the same time, a report by Parsons & Ravenscroft for 2016 shows that 20% of composers from around the world are female. While still not ideal, the situation is changing.

I did my own research — I took the top 20 movies at the 2019 Worldwide Box Office Rating of films, provided by Box Office Mojo, and found that two of them were scored by women composers. The music for Captain Marvel (the movie made it into the top five) was written by Pinar Toprak, who graduated from Berklee College of Music and is part of Hans Zimmer's production company. Hildur Gudnadóttir, a composer from Iceland, won the Best Original Score Oscar for Joker. This is only the second time in history — the first woman to win an Oscar was Rachel Portman.

I talked to three female composers about the stereotypes they faced in a male-dominated industry.

Evelyne Datl, a Canadian composer for Film and Television, started her career in the 90s, creating a demo with a few tracks and making cold calls. At the time, it was very difficult: there just wasn't a lot of receptivity. Even if people answered the call and invited her for a meeting, a lot of them still questioned whether she would be able to do the job. "Not a lot of people wanted to take the risk. Luckily, I had some that believed in me … and that was great. I think, comparatively, I've been pretty lucky. At the time, really there was, maybe, one or two other women in my city doing music for TV," the composer recalls.

She makes further emphasis on this concept of "risk". "Men have been taught to be the leaders, from a cultural standpoint of survival. You know, they are the ones who protected women, they are the stronger ones, they are the ones that went and did the risk taking," Evelyne contemplates. The filming process, production of albums for an artist, concerts — these projects have a lot of potential risk involved: "If it doesn't turn out right, it's a big waste of the resources, it's a lot of responsibility. Those are the kinds of things men are typically assigned with because they are seen as the ones that are stronger, more resilient under pressure. I think that is what needs to change — that perception. They might appear to be more resilient, but as we know deep down, there's often a lot that goes on with men that they don't show."
Photo of Evelyne Datl, provided by Evelyne Datl
There are a lot of people who think that women haven't done enough or their music is "weaker" than that of men, but the Canadian points out that females just haven't been given enough chances. "When male composers start out, sometimes their first work isn't that great, it might not be the highest quality because they're still cutting their teeth on it, they're still learning, they're gaining their experience. It's kind of overlooked. When a woman steps in, and [the music] is not as high-quality as some of her male peers' work, it's really looked down on, it's judged. If it's a woman, it's just judged through a different lens," Evelyne notes.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is that it isn't just the men, it's the women too. Although they really liked Datl's music, female movie directors weren't sure if she could handle the pressure. "Because it's a lot of pressure. You have to have a tough skin, because there's a lot of anxiety when people are making a film, or a TV series, because there's a lot of money involved," Evelyne says. "There's always a deadline with not enough time. The music always comes last, things have sometimes gone wrong up until then that you don't necessarily know about. Then the music com[es] last and it's often on the composer to fix [those] problems."

The topic of pressure is quite relevant, given that the pressure doubles if it is a woman composer — your colleagues will doubt your expertise at times. " [When] I became older and [started having] my own opinions or wanted to lead in any kind of way [was] when I got this kind of bristling response from men," Evelyne shares. The composer herself has had experiences where she would be tested, especially when she started producing albums for other musicians. Once, while working with an engineer in the studio, she asked him to add more high-end on an instrument, to which his response was that she wouldn't be able to tell the difference between before and after adding high-end. "He covered the computer screen so I couldn't see it, and he A/B'd both versions and [asked] if [I] can tell the difference. This is on my client's time. I was successfully able to pick out the one that had added high-end. It's just that they would have never done that to a guy," she tells me.

Michelle DiBucci, an American composer who writes music for film, television, opera, and theatre, believes that there is more of a bias against women in film scores than concert composition. "It drives me crazy when female composers are assigned a film with the intention to convey a female aesthetic," she elaborates. "More specifically, I am troubled by the idea that a score with piano melody, lush string accompaniment on a simple harmonic progression constitutes a feminine aesthetic. What about elbows on the piano and blaring trombones? Women express this just as readily, given the chance. Kathryn Bigelow has paved the way for female film directors to work in the categories of action, horror and suspense. I am waiting for female film composers to be given the same opportunities."
Photo of Michelle DiBucci, provided by Michelle DiBucci
As a child, Michelle loved to play and make music, however it never crossed her mind to be a composer. Coming from a non-musical family and never hearing of any female composers in the field, she was deeply invested in becoming an actress. "I auditioned whenever possible and was active in several youth theater companies," the composer remembers. "When I was sixteen, while acting in the play Woyseck by Georg Büchner, I listened to the opera — Wozzeck by Alban Berg — and BANG! I never knew music like this existed and my world was rocked." At the director's request, she composed music for the play, enlisting her high school orchestra, and after this experience composing and producing music she decided to shift her path. On this journey, she met with a lot of discrimination financially.

Often, women are expected to capitulate on their fees solely because they are women. "As a female composer, I have had a more difficult time than my male colleagues with negotiations about money," Michelle conveys. Trying to hold her ground, she lost business that later would go to male contemporaries for a higher price.

There are a lot of reports supporting the statement. According to a study conducted by Gender in the Canadian Screen Composing Industry, the amount that men earned on average from upfront composing fees were 8 times higher than what women earned. Data from SOCAN (the Society of Composers, Authors & Music Publishers of Canada) for performance royalties from audiovisual sources indicate that the amount of royalties distributed to women were on average 30% of those distributed to men.

In Evelyne's words, such studies carry a positive influence because they find resonance and create pressure on companies, which have to follow the diversity policy, including the gender balance. "As a matter of fact, I've just been hired to do music for a documentary because the broadcasting station said [they] have to get a woman. Okay, well, that's great, but I wish it … was just because they like me," the composer laughs.

On top of that, various movements such as #MeToo have been of great help. "I see a lot of encouragement on the discussion forums — let's hire women, and there's a lot of men that write: 'Why would you hire a woman rather than someone who's good at the job?'" Evelyne notices. Being part of a group of other women composers, she meets with them to talk about their experiences and stories. "It's great to have that kind of support because you don't feel as alone, and you can troubleshoot how to deal best with what's going down," she admits.
Photo of Laura Rossi, provided by Laura Rossi
One of the hardest things for any female composer is entering the market and getting those first gigs. Laura Rossi, a native of Devon, more famous for her orchestral score for the digitally restored 1916 film The Battle of the Somme, found her own way. "I think the most difficult thing starting out is looking for work. I've never been good at selling myself, so I took a different route and found some silent films to score and tour and that led on to other things … Scoring short films was also good to do," she recounts her first steps.

Although Laura has a lot of wonderful experiences working with men, she also found herself in uncomfortable situations at times. "You do sometimes feel out of it — there have been many times I've been in a room full of men — and there is just this general banter that happens," she writes. "It's not intentional, but if there is [one] girl and [nine] blokes it just happens and you can feel out of place. Things are changing though, which is great!"

The New York Times painted a not so optimistic picture: since 2013, the film scoring certificate program at the University of California, Los Angeles has produced 120 graduates, of which only 25 percent were female. Likewise, only a quarter of applicants to the film scoring graduate program at USC for the past year were female — although the school invited seven women to join its 20-student program. This year, on the other hand, USC Thornton Screen Scoring program has invited 10 women, all of whom plan to attend.

With all of the current difficulties female composers experience in the film scoring industry, Michelle believes in a brighter future. "There has never been a better time in history than now for female composers. In addition to 20th century opportunities like concert, stage, TV & film and recording projects, original music is also needed for mixed media, video games, and apps. Furthermore, as advances are made in augmented and virtual reality, more opportunities will follow for innovator ways to continue making music. The future is bright!" she concludes.
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