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Competing for equality: Gender and racial disparities in classical music competitions since 1890

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In many fields, success is contingent upon winning a competition. However, if competitions are systematically biased against certain types of people, perhaps because of their gender or nationality, society may lose the opportunity to benefit from their talents. The potential for bias is especially strong in the performing arts, where quality is subjective. Together with Marc Law and Roberto Asmat we propose to illuminate this issue by examining the extent of gender and nationality bias in more than two thousand international piano competitions that have been held since the late 19th century. In this project we plan to estimate the degree of gender and racial bias over time and to investigate if the extent of bias is affected by historical events, jury composition, and competition location.


For phenomenological and practical reasons, music competitions are an attractive setting for studying the important questions of gender and racial discrimination in labor markets. Assessment of a musicians' performance is very subjective and susceptible to various biases. Subjective judgments are inevitable in many other domains, including job interviews, but they cannot be rigorously assessed due to data limitations. In our context, data are available on the background of competitions' participants and juries, including their gender, race, and detailed biographical records. Therefore, by examining music competitions, we may be able to illuminate more broadly the phenomenon of discrimination.


We will assemble a novel data set of pianists and juries from nearly 200 international competitions held in 40 countries over a period of more than 100 years. The project relies on rich administrative data on participants and juries in over two thousand international piano competitions held since 1890, and a quasi-experimental empirical design. Our methodology consists of exploiting two sources of variation in music competitions: variation in ratio of women and minorities on juries, and "blind" versus "not blind" assessments in competitions.


This project speaks directly to current debates over policies aimed at narrowing gender and racial gaps in high-level positions in the classical music industry, such as women-only music competitions, explicit efforts to recruit minority musicians in symphony orchestras, and diversity training. Moreover, the policy implications of this project are relevant for Europe as most renowned classical music competitions take place here, including the prestigious Carl Nielsen International Music Competition, held in Odense since 1980. Finally, improved knowledge of the determinants of gender and racial discrimination in competitions may help to explain the lack of diversity in top academic and business settings.