There were some huge moments for women in music in 2019. Billie Eilish became the youngest woman ever to be nominated for all four of the top Grammy Awards. Lizzo broke the record for the longest-running No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 by a solo woman rapper. Ariana Grande broke the record for the most simultaneous Billboard Hot 100 hits by a solo woman. Taylor Swift then rewrote that record as all the songs from her album Lover entered the Billboard Hot 100. It seems like women ruled music in 2019, but not so fast.
The good news is that all the talking we are doing about women being underrepresented as performers, songwriters, producers, and in Grammy nominations is spurring people to take up the cause of inclusivity.
The latest report out of the US from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, their third year tracking representation for women in music, finds that although the overall story still speaks to massive underrepresentation for women in all aspects of music, some gains are being made.
Overall, women still lag, performing only 21.7% of the most popular 800 songs over the last eight years when the group crunched the numbers based on who's in Billboard's Hot 100. But there is some good news: in 2019, women performed a higher percentage of those songs than they had in 2017 and 2018, both historically low years. Could it be that talking about the hard numbers has caused labels, programmers, and gatekeepers to examine why they weren't playing and supporting music by women?
Women in pop music are faring best, although still thoroughly underrepresented, with a 36.1% share of the music charts. Women in alternative rock have it the worst, where they comprised only 11% of tracks — that's an 8.1 to 1 gender imbalance.
"Almost a year ago, I joined onto the initiative from the Recording Academy’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force to create opportunities for females in the music industry. While recording my new album I wanted to ensure there were women involved in the creative process," said Selena Gomez, commenting on her new album, Rare. "I feel proud that women were essential collaborators on every song whether as a songwriter, producer, or engineer. It’s a start, but there is much work to be done to amplify women’s voices in our business."
There is some good news for women of colour as well: artists from underrepresented racial groups represented 56.1% of 2019’s artists.
"Women are still missing from popular music," Dr. Stacy L. Smith of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative says. "Yet we do see that the music industry values women of colour and their contributions. In 2019, over half of the female artists on the popular charts were women of colour. This is in stark contrast to what we see in the film industry."
The Grammy Awards saw a jump in recognition for women nominees in 2020, with women going again from all-time low years in 2017 and 2018 to double the nominations in 2019 and a historic high of 20.5% of nominees in 2020. The highs are concentrated in the Best New Artist category, which has historically been a strong for women, Album of the Year, and Song of the Year.
The change comes down to the strides the Academy has made since they formed their diversity task. They invited more women and people of colour to join the voting body but also changed the review committees that decide who is nominated for Grammy Awards to make sure they have a 50/50 gender split.
These changes helped women songwriters and producers, who both saw small gains in 2019. The Annenberg Inclusionists Initiative posits that the various programs to help locate women working behind the scenes, from Alicia Keys' She Is The Music to Spotify and SoundGRL's EQL directory and residency, are helping to connect people with women in production. And that discussing the lack of women in production roles — they still only made up 2.6% of producers in the 2019 data set — is prompting those so empowered in the industry to mentor and work with women.