Only 4.4 per cent of works in all the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) piano syllabuses over the past two decades were by women, according to new research.
An analysis of 158 pieces on this year’s piano syllabus for ABRSM graded examinations, shared with the Sunday Times, found that exam lists for grades 4 and 6 include no female composers.
Composers are calling on exam boards to address the historic gender imbalance – especially at the more advanced grades.
Dr Angela Elizabeth Slater, composer and founder of Illuminate Women’s Music, who conducted the research, warned that a lack of diversity could affect pupil engagement.
Dr Slater said: “They could be actively doing more to dispel the myth of composer as male, and reflect our society today and music history, by including far more works by women composers.”
Her research found only 77 pieces by women on the syllabus from 1999 to 2019. “Works by women are often in the alternative lists and not in the main examinations books,” she told The Independent.
“This presents a further barrier for teachers and students to engage with this repertoire.”
Pam Wedgwood, one of the female composers on the ABRSM piano syllabus, says all exam boards need to do more to increase the works by females in the higher grades.
“It was a man’s world when I started and to a certain extent it still is,” she told The Independent.
Four years ago, exam board Edexcel was forced to overhaul its A-level music syllabus after a teenager won a campaign to ensure female composers were studied on the course.
Jessy McCabe launched a petition after discovering there were no women among the 63 composers featured on the Edexcel program, which covers a range of musical genres and eras.
The ABRSM, which holds more than 650,000 music exams across the world each year, has also been criticised for using language in questions that assumes composers are male.
Academic Dr Anna Bull tweeted: “The use of the default male pronouns by the ABRSM reflects the fact that their syllabi contain almost no women composers.
“Why do they think they can still get away with this?”
Penny Milsom, director of products and services at the ABRSM, told the Sunday Times: “We are committed to increasing gender diversity as part of our approach to refreshing our syllabuses and publications.
“We support other colleagues across the music industry working to increase the representation of women in music.”