Keith Cerny, General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera
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Gender Parity in Opera Management

Dallas Opera General Director and CEO Keith Cerny notes the success in some roles, but the significant improvements required in other areas—notably General Directors and CEOs.

published Sunday, February 7, 2016


Dallas — I have written before about TDO’s Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors, designed to support women conductors on the cusp of major careers. Even 15 years into the 21st century, women conductors make up a tiny minority of the conductors employed in the opera and symphonic world (for some statistics, please see this previous posting). In this month’s Off the Cuff, I wanted to share statistics and analysis about women leaders in opera off the podium, especially at companies at the top of the food chain, based on recently published data.

In January of this year, the Women’s Opera Network website was launched, hosted by OPERA America, where I have the privilege of serving on the Board. As the site notes, “Women represent more than half of the national population, yet the percentage of women in leadership roles within the field of opera is comparatively small. OPERA America is addressing these issues by convening a group of stakeholders (female and male) to explore and work actively to advance gender parity field wide. This page provides general resources for the public and specific resources for OPERA America members.”

The WON has three primary goals, according to the website:

  • Increase awareness of and discussion about diversity and gender parity in the field.
  • Create action plans to promote the advancement of talented women.
  • Become a source of support for emerging female professionals.

The site also includes longitudinal data on leadership positions in the opera field, going back to 1990, and I have used this data in my analysis to evaluate the balance between men and women in opera in key leadership positions at Level 1 companies. I have chosen to focus on General Director, Development, Marketing, Education, Production and Finance positions, as these are the most unambiguous, in terms of responsibilities. And, in case you were wondering, Level 1 companies, as classified by OPERA America, manage budgets of $ 10 million and up (For reference, TDO’s budget this year is around $ 19.5 million). I have chosen to focus on companies of this size in part because of the pay parity issue; while there is often no correlation between a company’s budget size and its quality (especially as measured by the level of innovation), there is absolutely a correlation between the size of the organization and its pay.

The following chart shows the percentage of women holding leadership positions in opera at four key dates: 1990, 1999, 2008 and current:

I have organized my conclusions in three categories: “Good news”, “Stuck in neutral” and “A long way to go.” I don’t believe the gender balance will ever be 50-50 all the time, or even that it should be, but something between 40-60 percent women leaders in any given year would reflect a reasonable balance given women represent just over half the population.

  • Good news. The most positive development has the been the growth in women leaders in the finance function, whether they are titled Chief Financial Officer of Director of Finance. From under 8 percent of the total in 1990, female finance executives now represent 40 percent of the total—mirroring, by the way, the improvements in opportunities for women in both public and private accounting over the same 25-year period. Women have consistently held the largest number of spots in development (60 to almost 75 percent, depending on the year). Having met many talented male Development Directors in multiple fields over the years, my hypothesis is that the opera field loses many experienced men to better paying fund-raising jobs for universities and foundations, not that there is any particular discrimination against them in opera. Director of Education positions have also been consistently well represented by women over that same 25-year period.
  • Stuck in neutral. Female Marketing Directors have ranged between 39 and 47 percent of the total, without a clear trend over the period. While this is not a disastrous imbalance, it still feels a little short of parity. There has been an increase in the percentage between 2008 and 2015, but since there are only 13-15 Level 1 companies at any one point in time, it is a relatively small sample size.
  • A long way to go. Women holding Director of Production positions have never exceed 20 percent of the total over the last 25 years, and have generally been much lower than that, mirroring the significant lack of gender parity in Stage Directors. The most glaring imbalance, however, is at the General Director level, where the percentage of women holding the top job has never been above 8 percent. In fact, in the four sample years represented, there was never more than one female General Director, and in 1999, there were zero.

Looking across the entire leadership team of these companies, the percentage of women in all leadership positions (as defined by WON), has actually decreased from 34 to 26 percent over the last 25 years. Many factors could have influenced that outcome, including—we must note—increased opportunities for women in government, as well as in the for-profit and corporate sectors.

In addition to my belief that any organization, whether for-profit or not for-profit, benefits by having access to the best possible pool of talent—which needs to include both men and women—there is also the ongoing issue of pay equity. As the top position in any company, General Directors/CEOs earn the most, followed by Development Directors, with Directors of Finance/CFOs next; marketing directors and directors of production typically fall somewhat below that. Women are extremely under-represented at the highest paid position, but—at least in 2015—fare better with the next two most highly paid positions.

Looking now at General Director (GD) positions specifically, according to WON, “the GD/CEO percentages at Level 2 and Level 3 companies have shown more variance but remain on average between 17 to 21 percent over the last 16 years.” The greatest success in opportunities for women has been in Level 4 companies (the ones with the smallest budgets), which in round numbers has grown from just over 30 percent of positions held by female leaders to nearly 50 percent over the last 25 years. In 2015, there is one female GD for a Level 1 company, 6 for Level 2, 3 for Level 3, and 38 for Level 4.

In a future piece, I will offer some hypotheses on why women are still so under-represented at the General Director level, but certainly any Board in the process of selecting a General Director today has a substantial pool of female candidates to consider. In 2016, if a Board is considering a General Director for a Level 1 company, and seeks an experienced leader with direct—and current—experience in managing a smaller company, they have 47 candidates to choose from in Level 2, 3, and 4 companies. Similarly, a Board looking for a General Director of a Level 2 company has 41 female candidates to evaluate from a Level 3 or 4 company. Naturally, current experience in the opera field is only one of many possible criteria, or backgrounds, a board might consider (some boards explicitly try to hire General Directors from outside the field), but clearly there is a robust pipeline of talented and experienced women for Boards to consider in the future. Given this, my hope is that we start to see the field move towards a more pronounced gender balance, as has happened so positively and steadily in the opera finance area.


◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in Below is a list of previous columns:

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Gender Parity in Opera Management
Dallas Opera General Director and CEO Keith Cerny notes the success in some roles, but the significant improvements required in other areas—notably General Directors and CEOs.
by Keith Cerny

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