Keith Cerny
Music and Opera reporting on is made possible by The University of North Texas College of Music.
Select the link below to discover more.

How Boards Can Break Glass Ceilings

The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny offers a perspective on how the recruiting process itself, rather than any bias in the selection committee, often makes it more difficult for women candidates to progress to the final hiring stages for top opera positions.

published Sunday, August 7, 2016



Dallas —  In several earlier columns, I have written about some of the challenges facing women in securing positions as General Director or Music Director at top American opera companies. Despite significant societal changes over the last 25 years, and an increase in opportunities for women, top positions in the opera field remain stubbornly male-dominated. Upon closer examination, we can discern some of the underlying drivers of this continuing imbalance.

To set the stage, it is important to understand the enormous change that the Internet has made on recruiting non-profit executives. Before pervasive use of the Internet as a recruiting tool, many non-profit jobs were advertised in print publications. Others, rather than being advertised publically, were managed by executive recruiting firms ranging from small boutiques to the five global recruiting firms. This environment created a relatively closed and often slow-moving world where search firms with knowledge of leadership openings had a tremendous advantage over potential candidates. In today’s world, many jobs are advertised digitally, and often for free, on one of a dozen or so websites (e.g. OPERA America’s job section). Even today, some of the most prominent jobs in the industry are never advertised publicly, but are managed exclusively through executive recruiting firms. These, however, have become the exceptions to the rule in the 21st century. What has not changed is that many Board search committees still routinely hire executive search firms to assist them in filling the top slots: General Director, CFO, etc.

Returning to the question of gender parity in opera companies, it is perhaps somewhat mysterious why so few women hold the top job (in my most recent analysis, less than 10 percent of Level 1 companies are headed by a woman, a statistic which has not budged in 25 years). After all, the Democratic nominee for President of the United States is a woman, women can now serve in active combat roles, fly 777s, and lead Fortune 500 corporations, major universities, Boards, and Foundations. There are many talented women in the opera field, often working at smaller companies, which should create a natural pool of candidates when the search selection committee is looking for someone with a preponderance of experience from within the industry (sometimes, of course, Boards are looking for an “outsider” candidate to bring a completely fresh perspective to the organization). In addition, Boards are very sensitive to the issue of gender parity, which begs the question of why so few women are given the opportunity to head major operations in our field. And, although this article is primarily about opera companies, many of these same themes apply to other performing arts and non-profit searches as well.

One driver of this continuing imbalance is the process by which search committees typically work with search consultants to hire General Directors. To generalize the process, effective search consultants begin by interviewing search committee members to identify the requirements for the position, and then develop a position specification or job description. They then scour the market to identify a candidate pool, and a “long list” of candidates. This market review may involve advertising of the position, desk research of current leaders in the field, and proactive contacting of potential candidates to add to the pool. These preliminary candidates are screened, often with the assistance of the Search Committee. After that, the Search Committee will have one or more in-person interviews with the candidates, screening down to a final candidate (and perhaps a backup or two), before completing references and negotiating an offer.

Having observed many search processes, either as a candidate, hiring executive, search committee member, or executive recruiter, I have noted that this typical process can make it difficult for women candidates to achieve parity. Some of the underlying causes are as follows:


  • Candidate Self-selection bias. I have written before about the concept of a potential “Confidence Gap” in women executives. Many searches require candidates to complete an application, and even if they do not, candidates may or may not “put themselves forward” for a position when the recruiter calls. This is an area where the confidence gap hurts women, who may self-select out of important searches, or undersell their capabilities with recruiters in a preliminary screening interview.
  • Inefficient flow of information. The Internet has created an interconnected world that few other than technology visionaries could have anticipated twenty-five years ago. That being said, it is striking how often information flow remains imperfect in the non-profit recruiting field. In General Director searches, I often hear the comment that “there just aren’t any women out there.”  In fact, there are many capable women leading smaller companies, but the information about them is not easily available in a pre-packaged form for busy search committees or recruiters.
  • Recruiter bias. Recruiters play an enormously important role in filtering which candidates the Search Committee ultimately sees.  Unfortunately, there are some recruiters, male and female, who do not put forward all qualified women candidates. I won’t speculate on their motivations for holding back, but the end result is: the Search Committee never sees any women candidates, and therefore none are selected.
  • First-time CEO / Catch 22. Search committees are looking to minimize the risk associated with a leadership transition, and tend to feel most comfortable with an executive who has held the same job elsewhere, at a similar scope and scale of responsibility. This creates a “Catch 22” type situation, where any executive seeking a CEO position faces skepticism if she, or he, has not held the position before. Since women are currently under-represented in the ranks of the largest opera companies, this factor regularly works against them.
  • Selection bias. The inter-personal dynamics on the search committee have a major impact in how seriously women candidates are viewed throughout the hiring process. While in today’s litigious environment few search committee members dismiss qualified candidates based solely on gender, all Board committees tend to be dominated by a few loud voices, and if these voices gravitate towards male candidates, the search committee will do so, too.

How Board search committees can avoid gender bias

Fortunately, there are practical and specific ways for Board search committees to shape the search process to ensure a level playing field between male and female candidates. As noted above, Boards often engage executive recruiters to assist them with major hires. Done well, executive recruiting is an admirable profession, which requires unique insights into the industry, understanding of the goals of the search committees, skill in identifying highly-qualified candidates, and very hard work. However, as with every other profession, there is a great range of temperament and capabilities evident among the people who work in the field. So, in closing, here are my five tips on how Board Search Committees can manage the search process for gender neutrality.

  1. Advertise the position widely in prominent print and online media. This is very easy to do, and the costs are minimal. There are two usual counter-arguments to advertising from recruiters. The first is that advertisements tend to produce a large number of unqualified candidates. While this may be true in some cases, the workload to separate the “wheat from the chaff” is manageable, and advertising widely ensures efficient flow of information between the recruiter and potential top-quality prospects. The second argument is that advertising the vacancy diminishes the stature of the position. This is nonsense. If you look to recent searches in the U.K., the vacancies for the top job at Covent Garden, General Director of Glyndebourne, and CEO of the Royal Albert Hall have all been advertised publicly, and no reasonable person would assert that the positions have been in any way diminished for it.
  2. Don’t make the mistake of relying solely on advertising. Good recruiters in my experience are very proactive, and make many unsolicited calls in their quest for top-notch candidates. In one non-profit search I worked on, my Managing Partner and I contacted well over 300 people, and we found an outstanding CEO who has remained on the job for many years. At the other extreme, I know of a major CFO search where just three candidates—total—were presented to the hiring committee. This is far too few, especially on what was contracted to be a national search.
  3. Avoid being “filtered” / disintermediated by the recruiters. Recruiters vary widely in their approach to candidate presentation. Some – and this is my preference – produce a status report every one to two weeks, showing a ranked list of candidates who have been contacted. Others will lead an entire search, lasting six to nine months, and produce just a few candidates at the end. It is vitally important for the Search Committee, and not just a sub-committee, to observe the process by which the applicant pool is screened down to the short list, as this is one of the primary ways in which qualified women candidates are quietly dropped by recruiters who are ambivalent about women serving in leadership roles.
  4. Be sensitive to different perceptions about candidates’ résumés, as well as the scope and scale of previous work. Whether the decision makers are aware of it, or not, many people subconsciously react differently to male versus female candidates when they interpret how past work experience qualifies them for their next role. In my experience, Boards are generally more willing to give an opportunity to an ambitious male candidate, who has not done the role before, than to a woman; women are expected to have done a similar role before, in a way that men are not. This behavior is also true for Music Director Appointees.
  5. Don’t confuse humility with weakness (true for both men and women). Opera Company General Directors, like all non-profit executives, have a dual role. They are simultaneously the “face” of the organization - working with the opera field, the community, and the Board; while also acting as the leader of the internal organization. Boards tend to give extra weight to confident personalities, as they see this trait as essential for the executive’s public facing role; however, confidence on its own is not a good predictor of management skills. This is an area where the “confidence gap” described earlier, may inflict disproportionate harm to the chances of women candidates.

In general, the performing arts field is becoming more aware of the benefits—and there are many—of improved diversity in the workplace. Greater diversity brings new ideas and fresh approaches to implementing the company’s mission, advancing the artistic quality of our performances, applying innovation, tapping potential and creating opportunity. Many Board leaders on Search Committees devote significant energy to evaluating all candidates fairly, regardless of gender, and the five specific steps noted above will go a long way toward ensuring that all candidates have an equal opportunity to be considered for major leadership positions.


◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears the first Sunday of each month in








 Thanks For Reading

View the Article Slideshow
Click or Swipe to close
How Boards Can Break Glass Ceilings
The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny offers a perspective on how the recruiting process itself, rather than any bias in the selection committee, often makes it more difficult for women candidates to progress to the final hiring stages for top opera positions.

by Keith Cerny

Share this article on Facebook
Tweet this article
Share this article on Google+
Share this article via email
Click or Swipe to close
views on theater, dance, classical music, opera and comedy performances
news & notes
reports from the local performing arts scene
features & interviews
who and what are moving and shaking in the performing arts scene
season announcements
keep up with the arts groups' upcoming seasons
listen to interviews with people in the local performing arts scene
media reviews
reviews and stories on performing arts-related film, TV, recordings and books
arts organizations
learn more about the local producing and presenting arts groups
performance venues
learn more about the theaters and spaces where the arts happen
keep up with fabulous ticket giveaways and other promotions
connect to local arts crowdfunding campaigns
post or view auditions and performing arts-related classes, services, jobs and more
about us
info on TheaterJones, our staff, what we do and how to contact us
Click or Swipe to close
First Name:
Last Name:
Date of Birth:
ZIP Code:
Your Email Address:
Click or Swipe to close
Join TheaterJones Around the Web

Follow Us on Twitter

Subscribe to our Youtube Channel

Click or Swipe to close
Search the TheaterJones Archives
Use any or all of the options below to search through all of reviews, interviews, features and special sections. If you are looking for a an event, use the calendar section of this website. This search will not search through the calendar.
Article Title Search:

Description Search:
TheaterJones Contributor:

TheaterJones Section:

Showing on or after:      Showing on or before:  
Click or Swipe to close
We welcome your comments

I am discussing:  

Your Name:
Your Email Adress:

please enter the text below and then click or tap SUBMIT :