Making Women’s History Now — Cultural Diplomacy and Gender in the International Music World

In honor of Women’s History Month, Shattering the Ceiling is going to be profiling a series of women who we believe are making women’s history now.  These are the women who we want our daughters, sisters, nieces (and selves) knowing about and being inspired by.  And we imagine that when future generations are celebrating Women’s History, these are some of the women they’ll be honoring.

Weir-Nina-2In today’s Making Women’s History Now interview, I discuss cultural diplomacy and gender in the international music world with Katarina Weir, the Executive Director of the YOA Orchestra of the Americas (“YOA”).

As the Executive Director, Katarina spends three quarters of the year preparing for a large international concert tour and the other quarter of the year on that tour.  One of the most well-traveled individuals I’ve ever met, Katarina was actually in the London Heathrow airport, in-between two very long flights on her way to Cape Town, when we were able to connect. Luckily, we had time to dive into her experiences with gender, management theory, and cultural diplomacy before her next flight boarded.

Before we dive into bigger issues, do you want to give us a quick rundown on YOA and why we should all be fans?

Yes!  YOA is a symphony orchestra of gifted young musicians, ages 18 to 30, representing over 25 countries in the Western Hemisphere. The auditions are free, and all musicians selected participate on full scholarship.  Musicians get to work with some of the top conductors and professional musicians in the world in a 2-week training camp, and then they get to go on a concert tour to perform.  Over the course of 16 years, YOA has performed over 300 concerts; inspired more than 40 musical initiatives launched by alumni; auditioned over 15,000 musicians; and toured 33 different countries across the globe — the vast majority of which are in Central and South America.

Let’s talk a bit about your role as Executive Director.  What is your approach to management at YOA?  Do you think it is a gendered approach at all?

Each year, I get to have these amazing experiences bringing music to individuals and communities that wouldn’t necessarily have access to it at the same level they get through YOA.  I’m not a musician, but I’m passionate about what we do and really honored to be able to be a part of this all.  I think having leadership committed to the vision is very important, particularly for mission-driven non-profits like YOA.

With respect to gender in management, our year-round staff is predominantly women but the seasonal touring staff is predominantly men.  While I do think I manage the seasonal touring staff slightly differently, I don’t think that is gender-based.

In fact, I don’t think there is a particular managerial approach that applies to women or that applies to men. Good managers have to assess what works for each of the people they manage, what works for them, and then apply that.   For example, one of our male employees flourishes with a very engaged form of management where I provide a significant amount of positive reinforcement in ways that I think some people traditionally associate as being more gendered for women.  Some of my female staff don’t need that, don’t want that.  Our interactions are less “soft” and more direct.  It is about what works with each person.

And regardless of gender, I am careful to be aware of the boundaries between manager and staff; to make sure that when we need to deal with difficult situations or corrective situations, the fact that I am still the boss doesn’t seem abrupt or upsetting.  And to make sure that people don’t assume that because I’m friendly, they can take liberties or ignore certain rules of the organization.  And the care I have to take on this front may be more because I’m a woman.  I imagine that if I were a man, I wouldn’t have to worry as much about people recognizing and remembering my authority.  I wouldn’t have to both make sure I’m presenting as friendly-enough and commanding enough.

Have you faced any challenges in your role as Executive Director that you think were either because you are a woman or were exacerbated because of your gender?

Certainly.  Like what we just addressed, I’ve had to deal with something similar externally.  Particularly when we are going to be touring in Latin America, where some of the communities haven’t gotten as used to seeing women as the boss, some of the external partners we work with assume that a male colleague is the boss.  So when we meet with them, they look to him, talk to him.  Then he turns to me and asks those same questions.  Even after an initial exchange like that, some partners don’t seem to grasp or won’t accept that I’m the Executive Director.  In my experience, more than anything, this has been more of an inefficiency than a real roadblock.  I also do get a lot of comments about my appearance, my attractiveness, externally that I don’t think a man in my position would get.  It’s just another reminder of how alien my being the ED is for some.

And, on my own, when coming into the role, I thought about what I needed to do as a young, female Executive Director. The Executive Director before me was a man who was also older.  When I took over the role, I preemptively set out for myself a schedule of personal interactions with Board Members— dinners, social engagements, those sorts of things — to build their trust and confidence in me. The Board has commented positively on the ways in which I engage on a personal level with them, and they see that I’m invested in them and in them getting to know and trust me.  I did that myself, so I don’t know if that was really something required by gender.  But it was something I purposefully did to ensure there would be trust and confidence.

You’ve lived all over the world.  How, if at all, do you think your experiences living in so many different countries and being exposed to so many different cultures has influenced or shaped your thoughts about gender and gender roles?

It’s hard to know because this is the way I grew up.  I know, generally, I’ve been very open to different people; I understand that there is a real humanity in everyone, regardless of how different they may appear or live.  And I think that’s something special about the orchestra as well — it emphasizes the humanity of all of us around the world.

But on gender roles in particular, my parents, even more than where I lived, certainly had a larger influence on this.  My mom was the main breadwinner for much of my life.  In Kenya, my mom was the person commuting and working, and my dad was the one staying home to raise us.  My parents always had a very equal relationship in terms of whose career was prioritized and who was taking on more responsibilities at home and the alternating of that balance at different times.

And my mother also built a very significant career.  She was independent and career-minded.  And she would share with me how she had grown up with women in her family who weren’t educated and who didn’t have careers or life opportunities in the same way.  That was both inspiring and intimidating: to see all she accomplished and cut out for herself from where she started, but also to feel the pressure to live up to that.

What is the usual gender makeup of the orchestra?

It’s pretty even.  Somewhere in between 50-50 and 60-40, yo-yoing back and forth.  And the balance of gender across instruments is actually unusual.  While there are sometimes clusters of gender in certain instrument sections, we’ve had some unique, counter-expectation gender representations across instruments.  For example, we once had an entirely female double-bass section — while normally you see almost all men playing that instrument.  We have had male flautists, and female tuba players.  Other examples like that.

This isn’t a particular effort on YOA’s part to set any sort of gender quotas or redistributions for each instrumental sections.  I believe that this comes from the fact that we don’t have set expectations about what a particular kind of musician should look like.  One of our most successful and beloved musicians is a woman from Venezuela who plays french horn; she is covered in tattoos and generally doesn’t match the staid image that many associate with classical music.  But we recognize that she’s a fabulous musician and that is what matters to us.

Are you familiar with the study that found that if musical auditions were conducted so that the gender of the musician wasn’t ascertainable, women were rated higher and given more solo and senior roles?  Does YOA do anything to make sure unconscious bias does not infect your audition process or the process by which musicians are selected for leadership or solo roles? 

I had heard about the study through our professional musicians who work as teachers and mentors with the organization, and I’m aware of the implications of it for any orchestra, even an organization like ours.  Luckily, our faculty are all individuals who are committed to one of the basic tenants of our mission — to level the playing field for people coming from wide-ranging backgrounds and privileges.  When you think about the opportunities young musicians have or haven’t had, gender is absolutely one of those factors you’re thinking about.  We’re thinking about all the obstacles and privileges that might go into each individual applicant and what that means for how we assess their potential.

The faculty who work with us aren’t old school; they are committed to undoing the old school rules and helping bring about something new.  That’s our mission.  So I do think that by putting this mission to the forefront, that can help tackle the unconscious biases that might otherwise be there.

And that is important because, as a practical matter, YOA does auditions via youtube in order to bridge the geographic divides.  The recording quality isn’t always that good, so it is important for us to be able to see how the person is playing, in addition to hearing what we can through the audio.  So we are not able to do blind auditions.

But we do what we can, like what I’ve just talked about.  And we build in things to confront the kinds of gender bias our musicians might expect to face in the future.  Our female faculty members host a panel discussions for the students on this topic.  They discuss the kinds of challenges they’ve had to face as women in the music world, and they provide our students practical tips about things they can do.  We believe in tackling gendered effects in music head on.

What are your thoughts about music and art diplomacy in a time where relationships with the rest of the world, even in the americas, is particularly strained?  Can YOA make a unique contribution on this front? 

I think it can.  We represent over 25 different countries, with musicians from so many different backgrounds and experiences.  They speak different languages (Spanish, Portuguese, English, and French are the main languages).  But then there they are, together on stage, making this beautiful thing to share with others.  We are a visible representation of what you can do working together.  I think we are an incredible counterexample to some of what we are hearing from politics.

In addition to power of our concerts, YOA also works in ways that can bring longer-lasting diplomatic effects as well.  We build relationships with organizations in the communities in which we perform.  We have a local partner that helps host us when we are in each concert location, and we send our musicians back to those organizations to keep those relationships vital and to provide support and contribution to the local communities.  YOA is invested in helping the local organizations grow and improve.

Can you tell me more about this last aspect of YOA’s work?  And what (either through that or something else) is YOA doing to promote diplomacy and social uplift?

In addition to what we’ve already discussed, YOA has the Global Leaders program – a professional certificate program in Community Leadership, Teaching Artistry, and Social Entrepreneurship.  Through it, we teach our musicians how to go back and give back to their own communities.  We show them the power they have to create change in their own communities.

But this isn’t just about inspiring them.  We give them the tools; we teach them about fundraising and financial management, other more technical skills needed to be effective.  Those students who participate in our formal Global Leaders Program will, at the end of the program, get a Certificate in Social Entrepreneurship from Oxford; Certificate in Teaching Artistry from McGill.  They then put together a final project that they either want to start new or want to do as a part of an existing organization.  They the students pitch their ideas, Shark Tank-style, to a panel of professionals who give them feedback and ideas.  And then we, at YOA, try and help implement their programs.

Do you think the new U.S. Administration’s approach to international relations will have any effect on YOA and its operations?  

Honestly, we don’t know.  Luckily, we don’t depend on funding from NEA or anything like that, so that isn’t in jeopardy.  For us, the concerns sit more with what this will mean for travel and visas.  For example, we have some musicians who, after being in YOA, have moved to US to study in conservatories or to perform in orchestras.  And it is up in the air what all of this talk about changing immigration rules will mean for them.  We’ve also heard from some of our musicians and former musicians that they are very worried about what this will mean not just for themselves but also for their families.

And for the organization as a whole, we’ve toured in the U.S. in the past and had some of our musicians do continuing work here in the states.  For example, some of our musicians have worked with some of the DC public charter schools to help expand and support music education here in the States.  But, if the Administration implements changes that make travel more difficult, we at YOA are cognizant that this may make it more difficult for us to tour in the U.S. or keep up some of that programming.  We will just have to wait and see what will happen.



Katherine Kimpel

Kate Kimpel is the Senior Editor of Shattering the Ceiling and is also an accomplished civil rights lawyer. She represents women and people of color in discrimination cases (and other kinds of employment and civil rights matters).  When not lawyering, she likely is bragging about her hound dog Ulysses, inventing cocktails to serve at her next dinner party, or convincing her husband to watch reruns of a Joss Whedon television show (any of them will do). 

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