Wanna dance to some good old Madonna, or sing along with Rihanna? Chances are you won’t hear your favourite female artists when turning on the radio. In the UK, only 19% of the top 100 songs are sung by women artists (51% by men and 30% by mixed groups). Irish radio stations report similar numbers. And in the Netherlands, 25% of artists on the six biggest channels are women.
The gender disparity does not only apply to artists, but also to those working behind the scenes: 80% of the songwriters of the British top 100 radio songs are men, with 19% being women and 1% non-binary people (finally survey data that includes non-binary people!). And women make up only 3% of the producers. The popular Dutch Top 2000 – the list of the best songs of all time, aired by public broadcaster NPO Radio 2 – is particularly men-dominated, with only 12% of all songs being by women artists. Not surprisingly, the higher we go on the list, the fewer women we find.
Unfortunately, the problem extends beyond radio. On both Spotify and YouTube, most of the artists we listen to are men. The women artists that we play, however, are very popular; hi there Beyoncé, Rihanna, Dua Lipa, Adele, and Lady Gaga. Some music styles are more balanced, think of RnB. Others, like rock and classical music, are heavily biased towards white men artists. The same goes for country music, massively popular in especially the South of the United States.
Why is it that many of us prefer men musicians? One explanation is that women artists receive more criticism. They report being judged based on their lifestyle, their weight, clothing, et cetera – again, women are not just judged based on talent and performance, but on a range of irrelevant, often appearance-based factors as well. Second, some women artists have said they felt to be overshadowed by men collaborators. Whether this results from the women’s humility, the men taking up much space, both, or from other factors is hard to say. In any case, it shows that there’s work to be done to lift up women musicians.
Giving women artists a stage on radio and online music platforms matters. Airtime determines eligibility for accolades and event bookings. It makes it easier for artists to get deals with record labels. And more airtime and streams means more royalties – especially important in pandemic times, when earnings from live performances were basically cut down to zero for many artists.
How to fix gender and racial biases in music? A key first step is to do the counting and collect data. Initiatives like CMT Equaplay and SongData have successfully called for more airtime for women country singers in the United States. In Ireland, the campaign Why Not Her? has led various radio stations to commit to change. Consider making a donation to such initiatives, or start your own count and call for equality.