Guest Editorial: Where are the Girls?

September 20, 2011

by Dr. Ariel Alexander

To those of us who teach at the junior high, high school or collegiate level, it is no secret that boys and young men are participating in instrumental jazz at a far greater level than girls and young women. I’ve spent the last four years in the quest to answer two very simple questions:

  1. Why is it that females participate in instrumental jazz at a lesser rate than their male counterparts?
  2. What can we do as educators to encourage our female students to take part in instrumental jazz programs?

Throughout my research, I’ve found three main factors that serve to turn females away from jazz:

  • • The masculine image of jazz
  • • The gender stereotypes of musical instruments
  • • The behavioral tendencies and preferences of girls and young women

I’ve presented each area individually along with implications for educators.

The Image of Jazz

For the next few seconds, put yourself into the mindset of a 13-year old girl. Whose image appeals to you more: Lady Gaga or John Coltrane? Katy Perry or Miles Davis?

Since its inception, jazz has been seen as a world of men – a musical boys’ club if there ever was one.3 4 In fact, for much of jazz history, it has been impractical or even dangerous for females to participate in instrumental jazz. From the brothels of New Orleans to late night jam sessions in disreputable big city nightclubs, jazz came of age in places where women were either absent or exploited.

Not surprisingly, there are very few female role models in instrumental jazz. Female instrumentalists are largely absent from jazz textbooks.5 Female jazz instrumentalists are also underrepresented in the academic world, where one might have expected more of an effort to show gender diversity.6

Research tells us that girls and young women are shown to be more successful when they have female role models to look up to.7 However, with the danger-infused masculine stereotypes of jazz combined with the lack of female role models, young women today may simply not realize that pursuing an interest jazz is even an option for them.


Tips for Educators:

While we certainly can’t change the image of jazz overnight, educators at all levels can still take some important steps to expose their students to female jazz instrumentalists from past and present.

• Highlight female jazz musicians in your classroom discussions of jazz history. Some examples are Marian McPartland, Lil Hardin and Melba Liston.

• Show video clips and play audio examples featuring current female jazz artists. Ingrid and Christine Jensen, Esperanza Spaulding and Maria Schneider are great choices.

• When arranging for school performances or field trips, choose opportunities that involve female instrumentalists. Remember, it is not necessary to point females out (“Look! OMG! A girl playing the saxophone!!!”). Simply seeing female instrumentalists will help our students understand that females can, in fact, play jazz.


Sexual Stereotyping of Instruments

Here’s a generalization: Boys play the trombone and girls play the flute. Is this really true? In 1978, Ables and Porter conducted what has become the landmark study on the sexual stereotyping of instruments. After studying both adults and children, the researchers created what they call a ‘continuum’ of masculine to feminine instruments. Not surprisingly, they found that the drums, trombone and trumpet were seen as “masculine” instruments, while the flute, clarinet and the violin were perceived as “feminine.” In other words, as the stereotype suggests, boys were more likely to play the trombone, and girls were more likely to play the flute.

Researchers have also revealed other important trends in the sexual stereotyping of instruments. Younger children are less likely to hold sexual stereotypes about instruments. In other words, as girls age, they are more likely to gravitate towards “feminine” instruments. They also found that the way in which instruments are presented to a child in elementary school heavily influences his or her instrument choice. While we may question if this 1978 study is out of date, many recent researchers have explored this same area to find that over the last 30 years, the number of females playing “masculine” instruments has, in fact, not changed.8 9

So, what’s the big deal about sexual stereotyping of instruments? Well, let’s look at the standard instrumentation in a big band: saxophone, trumpet, trombone, bass, drums, guitar and piano. According to Ables and Porter, five out of these seven instruments are coded as “masculine.”

Next, we know that most students are given their first chance to ‘try’ jazz in junior high or high school jazz band. However, students who do not play “masculine” instruments likely do not get the opportunity to participate in jazz band. Therefore, these students are not exposed to jazz, nor are they given the opportunity to “try it out.”


Tips for Educators:

• Present instruments in a gender-neutral manner. This could mean bringing in both a female and male to demonstrate each instrument. Or, perhaps educators could supplement live demonstrations of instruments with audio or visual examples.

• Make jazz accessible to all instrumentalists, including non-traditional jazz instruments. This can be as simple as adding a few clarinets to the trumpet section, or violins to the saxophone section. Teachers can also form non-traditional ensembles such as “jazz flute choir” or “jazz string ensemble.” Hal Leonard’s “Combo Paks” and Jamey Aebersold’s play-along series can be easily adapted to be used by all instrumentalists.

Behavior and Socialization

Perhaps one of the most celebrated qualities of jazz is its focus on the individual. When we improvise, our goal is often to establish our own “voice.” In short, jazz is an expression of identity.

If you spend even five minutes in the halls of a junior high, it will be no secret that adolescent males and females are very different creatures. Research shows us that while males tend to form their identities based on independence and separation from their peers, girls and young women usually form their identities based on their relationships with others.10 Additionally, researchers have found that males and females use and experience music in very different ways. While males tend to use music as a personal expression, females are more likely to use music as a social means to connect with a group.11 Therefore, the female tendency to define herself based on interaction with others in an ensemble is at odds with the individualistic essence of jazz improvisation.

Another factor that may deter females from pursuing jazz is the competitive, head to head, nature of this art. Many common practices in jazz, such as cutting contests and trading fours, are based around not only competition, but actually dominating the bandstand in such a way as to make others back off. This emphasis on competition can be uncomfortable for girls and young women. Research shows us that although males are often motivated by competition, females tend to avoid situations that they anticipate as being competitive.12 It is no surprise that these general behavioral traits discourage females from playing jazz.

Tips for Educators:

Think about most adolescent girls. They are insecure, anxious and self-conscious. Can you think of a worse time to introduce females to jazz? It would be greatly beneficial if music educators included improvisation (not necessarily jazz) in their curricula throughout elementary school. Some great models are the Orff and Kodaly methods.

Try “group improvisation.” We know that females who are exposed to improvisation before adolescence are more likely to participate in jazz programs. Secondly, we know that adolescent females thrive in groups. We can use this to our advantage. Instead of asking the first tenor to solo, why not ask the whole saxophone section to take a solo together?

Don’t be afraid to give girls and young women a little “push” to give improvisation a try. When we let females opt-out of taking a solo, we are passively confirming their fears. Don’t give them time to refuse. “It’s Suzie’s turn, next. One, two, three, four, GO!”


I hope that in ten years, this type of article will be unnecessary. However, for now, our work isn’t done. We can’t rewrite jazz history and we certainly can’t change the behavioral tendencies of females. Nonetheless, educators at every level from elementary to college can start to make small changes with big ramifications. Let’s get started.


Dr. Ariel Alexander is a saxophonist, composer and educator in the Los Angeles area. She teaches at Chaffey College and Los Angeles Southwest College. 



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