Still Invisible: Marginalized and Stereotyped, Women Remain Under-Represented in Music Industry, According to New Annenberg Study

Dr. Stacy L. Smith
Michael Kovac/Getty Images for AFI

Dr. Stacy L. Smith attends the "Who Says? Underrepresented Voices In Film Criticism" panel discussion at Roosevelt Ballroom on Nov. 11, 2018 in Los Angeles.

Women remain shockingly under-represented in the key songwriting and production arms of the music industry, according to “Inclusion In the Recording Studio?” the second annual investigation into the industry by Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.

Released Feb. 5, the report analyzed the gender and ethnicity of artists and content creators across the 700 songs included on the Billboard Hot 100 year-end charts from 2012 to 2018. And, for the first time, the report included a qualitative study, with researchers interviewing 75 female songwriters and producers about their experience in the studio and the industry.

Among the key findings overall: On average during the seven years, only 21.7 percent of the artists featured on the songs were women. In 2018, despite the #MeToo movement and the growing conversation about women in leadership roles, only 17 percent of the artists were women.

In terms of producers, the male to female ratio was 47 to 1, and only 2 percent of producers were females. When it came to songwriting, only 12.3 percent of songwriters of 633 total songs (as some of the 700 songs repeated year to year) were female. More telling, 57 percent of the songs -- or 360 songs out of 633 songs across the last 7 years -- were missing a female songwriter. But 99% of songs, or 630 out of the 633, had at least one male writer attached.

"So, what does that do to the lyrics?” asks Smith, who authored the report with Marc Choueiti and Dr. Katherine Pieper. "It's a male saturated viewpoint of the lyrics that saturate the charts."

Courtesy of USC

Not everything was bad news, however.

While women of color tend to be even more marginalized than other groups in entertainment, in music it wasn’t the case. 

According to the study, 73 percent of all women on the year-end Hot 100 chart for 2018 were women of color, a considerable uptick from the 50% the year before and every previous year in the investigation. 

"This makes music a real deviation from television, film and story-telling in streaming services [where women of color are notably under-represented],” said Smith. "Music is the most inclusive place for women in color."

Courtesy of USC

Another bright spot in the study was the growth of female nominees for the 2019 Grammy awards, according to an analysis of nominations in the main categories and the Producer of the year category. All told, 1,064 individuals received a Grammy Award® nomination in the select categories from 2013 to 2019. A full 89.6 percent were male and 10.4% were female, a gender ratio of 8.6 males to every one female. But in 2019, the percentage of female nominees jumped to 16.4 percent from 8 percent the year before.

The change, said study author Pieper, is likely the result of the expansion in the number of nominees and the Grammys’ efforts to add new members and diversify membership. "We're obviously interested to see what impact this has in later years."

Beyond sheer numerical analysis, this year’s study also had a qualitative component for the first time. 

"We've done similar work in film,” Pieper explained. "So we turned our attention on female writers and producers to understand the experience they had in the recording studio. What the qualitative piece really showed us was that just being a woman is a barrier."

Courtesy of USC

A full 43 percent of those interviewed said they felt their work and contributions were discounted or not taken seriously, and that they consistently had to prove themselves. 39 percent of them said they felt stereotyped or sexualized, and 36 percent felt the industry was male dominated. 

"These were their spontaneous responses when we asked them what barriers they faced," said Pieper. In contrast, a similar qualitative study done with female producers and film directors in 2012 found that the most often mentioned barriers had to do with financing and networking, and less with sexualization and objectification. 

“There needs to be a radical cultural shift in these environments,” said Smith flatly. “If the experiences that these women discuss in the interviews took place in the academic environment, people would lose their jobs. So there needs to be a culture shift in not allowing these things [occur] in service to art.”

Given that need, a substantial portion of the study is dedicated to finding solutions to these problems. One immediate solution is bringing more women into the production and songwriting fray. 

“We asked if having more women in the studio would change the experience and nearly 45 percent said they felt more at ease, more comfortable,” if they weren’t the only one, said Smith. 

Specific programs mentioned in the study included the recently launched She Is The Music, which runs songwriting camps and offers mentorship; Spotify’s EQL Studio Residency program for female producers and engineers; and the For The Record Collective,  which will feature a first-of-its-kind collection of EPs, docuseries, and live events with music produced, written, and engineered by women.