For Women in Music, Equality Remains Out of Reach

Three years ago, an academic tallied up the performers, producers and songwriters behind hit songs, and found that women’s representation fell on a scale between, roughly, poor and abysmal.

The starkness of those findings shook the music industry and led to promises of change, like a pledge by record companies and artists to considering hiring more women in the studio.

But the latest edition of that study, released on Monday by Stacy L. Smith of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, has found that the numbers for women in music have mostly not improved, and in some ways even gotten worse.

Among the findings of the study, based on the credit information for songs on Billboard’s year-end Hot 100 chart for each year since 2012, is that last year women represented 20.2 percent of the performing artists of the year’s top songs — down from 22.5 percent in 2019, and slightly below the nine-year average of 21.6 percent.

Of the 1,797 artists behind the 900 songs on those charts — representing solo performers as well as members of duos and groups — there were 3.6 men to every woman, according to the study, which received funding from Spotify.

“Without accountability and transparency, pledges aren’t enough,” Dr. Smith said in an email interview. “There must be an emphasis on addressing the reasons that women do not have access and opportunity in the industry.”

While female celebrities like Taylor Swift, Beyoncé and Cardi B, often dominate the public conversation about pop music, the Annenberg study has found, year after year, that women play a lesser role in the industry overall. That disparity is especially clear behind the scenes, among the people who work in the studio as songwriters or producers.

Last year, the study found, 12.9 percent of the credited songwriters for the top 100 hits were women — a tiny bit above the nine-year average of 12.6 percent, but down from the 14.4 percent who had credits in 2019. After filtering out 87 songs that repeated from one year to the next across the sample, 57.3 percent of the songs had no women writers.

The top male songwriter during the period, Max Martin, had 44 credits. The top woman, Nicki Minaj, had 19. The other women with the most writing credits are Rihanna (14), Swift (14), Cardi B (13) and Ariana Grande (12).

Just 2 percent of producers of the top 100 songs last year were women, down from 5 percent the year before. Minority women have been almost totally excluded in this category: Of the 1,291 producer credits for the most popular songs in a 600-song subset since 2012, only nine of them were for women of color.

The takeaway of the report is that there has been no meaningful improvement in nearly a decade for women creators at the top of the music industry.

The charts are far more diverse when it comes to the ethnic backgrounds of performing artists. Last year, 59 percent of the artists behind the top 100 songs were people of color — a likely reflection of the dominance of hip-hop and the way that streaming has driven a globalization of the pop charts. This ratio has generally been climbing for both men and women over the course of the Annenberg study, although the upward trend is more pronounced among men.

In another announcement, PRS for Music, a major British copyright society, said that 81.7 percent of its members were men, although the pace at which women have been joining the organization — which handles licensing and royalty payments for songs — has been picking up.

The data collected by Dr. Smith and her colleagues, including Katherine Pieper, Marc Choueiti, Karla Hernandez and Kevin Yao, is publicly available. But their first study, in 2018 — coming in the midst of the #MeToo movement, and after Dr. Smith’s high-profile criticisms of diversity in Hollywood — still shocked the music industry.

Since then, a number of initiatives have been undertaken to address the industry’s underlying problems, among them She Is the Music, a group co-founded by Alicia Keys to promote women through efforts like mentorship and an employment database. In 2019, the Recording Academy, the organization behind the Grammys, asked record companies, producers and artists to promise to consider at least two female candidates for production and engineering jobs; at least 650 people and companies have signed on since.

Dr. Smith praised such efforts but said they are not enough.

“The industry has to move from expressing concern over the numbers,” she said, “to taking real and concrete steps to address bias and ensure access for the talented women who are already in this industry to the positions and spaces that remain closed to them. When this happens, the numbers will reflect this change.”

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