Why our orchestra is almost all female

"There are no egos"

BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE

 

The Perth Symphony Orchestra is one of the most progressive of its kind in Australia. Of its 150+ employees, more than 70 per cent of the musicians are female (and in performance, this sometimes shoots up to 90 per cent), and two males help run operations behind the scenes.

So what’s it actually like to work in an almost all-woman team? We wanted to find out, so we asked violist-turned-entrepreneur Bourby Webster. Bourby founded the PSO in 2011 along with its little sister Perth Chamber Orchestra, and helps send its musicians to play for audiences often reaching 8,000 people.

 

First up, we’d love to learn why it’s important for you to have mostly women on the PSO team.

PSO started because so many female musicians were pushing me to start another professional orchestra in Western Australia. We had all identified there was a need and an opportunity, and many female musicians who had taken on the main caring role since having children were dying to perform more regularly but couldn’t commit to full-time orchestral careers. We also had an incredibly talented female conductor – Jessica Gethin – who is a good friend of mine here in Perth. She was finding it hard to get work both here and further afield, so PSO began.

We didn’t set out to employ as many women as we could – we set out to work with the best musicians and administrators. As a result of the flexible hours in the office, and flexibility in our performances (musicians are invited each concert, so not tied into a schedule) we have attracted an incredible number of female musicians who have made choices regarding family and life that need flexibility. So it has worked out we are able to continue to grow the careers of women on and off the stage simply by doing what we do. We are very fortunate with the calibre of musicians and employees that we have.

We didn’t set out to employ as many women as we could – we set out to work with the best musicians and administrators

Did you face any difficulties starting up an orchestra with a female majority?

There were many challenges, from creating the right business model – how would we all get paid – to what would we charge if people wanted to hire the orchestra, where would we rehearse, how could we afford the insane amount of equipment we required and even if we could, where would we store it? But none of these issues related to gender. If anything, the orchestra has only gotten off the ground thanks to the remarkable support, input, and action of the musicians who are involved.

I do find women are incredibly empathetic and not scared to ask how things are for me personally – so I’ve been able to be open, and share with the many women in the orchestra some of the challenges, which they can then help in solving. So I greatly value the fact we are so female-dominated from the emotional support side of things. I still face certain challenges that are sometimes gender-related – it is hard to build strong personal relationships with sponsors where the main contacts are male

What are the advantages?

The office-based admin team – until recently, 100 per cent female – has been nothing but an inspiration. I started alone with the help of my partner (who is male and had to be incredibly patient being surrounded by women for so long), working from home. After going to the beach or going for a walk, I’d sit at my desk from 10am. I’d often work to 10pm, but when I took on the first team member (a young girl backpacking from the United Kingdom with some great skills and passion), we continued to start at 10am but had to let her leave at 6pm. As the team grew, and we needed part-timers, I advertised on Facebook for someone two days per week, working half-days. This meant two days 10am-2pm. I didn’t realise, but this fitted incredibly well between school drop-off and pick-up. So I had an insane calibre of women applying for the job.

The advantages are many: the women we employ are hugely qualified, work incredibly hard, are focused, brilliant time managers, and because their motivation is not so much about reaching a c-suite, and more about doing something fulfilling and making a difference, they are driven to help the orchestra succeed. We have a real laugh in the office, and work in a very collaborative and supportive way. There are no egos.

You’ve recently introduced your first male colleague into the mix.

Nick – our new artistic planning assistant – is a very very brave guy. But he knew what he was getting into. He plays cello in the orchestra so knows what we do, but I think even he was surprised to learn what goes in to running the orchestra. I actively sought out a male for the role to work with our conductor Jessica, and orchestra manager Georgina. I have worked in very large all-female teams before and small ‘tribes’ started forming that weren’t healthy and fun. I wanted to preserve the amazing culture we have in the office, and knew if I could find a grounded male to join the team, it would be a really good move for the next recruit. Nick has found himself in a very confined space (we work in a tiny office where we are on top of each other) with lots of strong, confident women. But exactly as I hoped, we love what he brings, and he handles conversations on feminism, PMT and other non-male topics very well. When things get very pressured in the lead-up to our big concerts, having Nick around with his very steady character I am sure will also help the rest of us stay more level-headed. He certainly has no issues with receiving leadership and instruction from more than one woman.

What’s the dynamic like for staff in the PSO?

Over the past two years, we have grown exponentially. Each time I looked for someone new to join the team, an amazing woman stepped up to say: ‘I want to be a part of this’. So the dynamic is one of striving to ensure PSO grows and thrives. There is a feeling of: ‘We are here to make this happen’, so there is a real buzz. We share excitement and good news, ensuring we celebrate the little things, but are also really sympathetic. We had some mega kicks-in-the-guts in 2016 and because I am so vested in the orchestra, I take way too personally. The [staff would] rationalise, offer advice and wisdom, and before long, we would be back to work. I really value that culture of support and resilience. Little things like a ping-pong net in the doorway between our two offices means regular tournaments take place to give us mental space in the day, so the team’s endless sense of fun makes it the best place to work I’ve ever known.

 

The next performance is An Irish Night on March 15, performed by PSO’s little sister the Perth Chamber Orchestra. Tickets and information from www.perthsymphony.com.


Image supplied. L-R: Celine Newsome, accounts; Tav White, production co-ordinator; Bourby Webster, founder; Belinda Sherry, PA to director and admin co-ordinator; Carol Daynes, bookkeeper.

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