In late December, when I first spoke to the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra’s new president and CEO, Sarah Bell, about gender bias and sexual harassment in jazz, she told me that overall her personal experience has been positive. A few days passed, then she reached out again. Since taking over her current role at NOJO last year, she said, she’s often found that being introduced as the leader of the organization earns “a chuckle and an apologetic smile” from new business contacts. “They make a beeline to [a male colleague]. [Other times] when I’m introduced, they blurt out, ‘Oh!’ and I can see the mental adjustment being made and their approach to the conversation being instantly re-evaluated,” she said.
In Bell’s previous role in the organization, introductions often went south too, with men scanning her physique from head to toe, then openly talking about their impression of her body instead of sticking to the meeting’s agenda. “In those moments you play it off, because the goal was to make them feel comfortable enough to engage the organization at a high level,” Bell said. “But internally you know that your work now includes getting the conversation, and their minds, back on track.”