The Persistent Glass Ceiling of Music

by Rob Mitchum

This is part of our Clarify Data Stories series. Check out the big issues, minus the noise at www.spotify.com/clarify to watch artists take on the issues that matter to them.

America’s first Presidential election with a female major party candidate has inflamed one of the country’s oldest issues: the equality of men and women. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s platform spotlights several feminist issues, such as equal pay and guaranteed family leave, while Donald Trump’s past behavior with women draws intense scrutiny. For many observers, the 2016 race has been a mixture of pride at the country’s potential first female head of state and frustration at how much societal misogyny remains.

Recent years’ pop charts also reflect a surge in female achievement and politics, with women dominating today’s lineup of music superstars. Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, Adele — these are some of the most successful artists in today’s industry, filling stadiums and radio playlists nationwide at a rate few current male artists can match. Given this dominance, you might think that today’s popular music is not only equal ground for male and female artists, but perhaps even tipping lately towards the women’s team.

Sorry to say, you’d be wrong. We combined Billboard’s charts, Gracenote metadata on performer gender, and Spotify data on genre to examine gender equality among popular music for the last 65 years, and found that the music industry has long been — and still remains — a man’s man’s man’s world.

Billboard’s “Hot 100” Since 1951

To look at the history of musical gender gaps, we took Billboard’s yearly “Hot 100” singles charts dating back to 1951 and classified each song’s performer as male, female, or mixed (eg. a male and female duet, or a group with both male and female vocalists). We then charted the results by year, to show the history of gender representation on the charts.

The percentage of male, female, and mixed artists in Billboard’s year end chart, 1951–2015. Data: Billboard, Gracenote.

It’s not hard to conclude from this graph that popular music has been predominantly male-dominated; what’s shocking is how persistent that dominance remains even in recent years. In fact, the only year where male artists sunk below 50% (not counting their role in “mixed” songs) is 1997 — the year of the first Lilith Fair and the Spice Girls. While 2010 and 2011 — lead, respectively by Ke$ha and Adele — also found men on the charts flirting with 50%, that number bounced back above 60% for 2015.

2016 Must Be More Gender-Equal, Right?

While it’s still too early to put together the 2016 chart, we could look at the most popular songs from this summer to see whether this year looks any better for gender equality. For the top 10,000 songs streamed nationwide on Spotify from May to September, the bias is even stronger than what we saw from recent years on the Billboard charts — 73.2% of the songs were by male artists, followed distantly by 14.3% female and 12.5% mixed. A similar breakdown was seen when we just looked at songs from 2016 — below isn’t just the same pie chart pasted twice, the one on the right is 2016 releases only, showing a breakdown of 73.1% male, 11.8% female, and 15.1% mixed.

The percentage of male, female, or mixed artists in the top 10,000 most-streamed songs on Spotify U.S. from May through September 2016. Left: all releases. Right: only 2016 releases. Data: Spotify, Gracenote.

Given the earlier anecdotal observation that female superstars outnumber their male counterparts today, one could hypothesize that women are better represented at the top of the heap, in terms of charts. While Billboard won’t release their Top 100 for 2016 for a couple more months, charts from this summer support that idea — female or mixed songs make up 10 of the 20 songs on the magazine’s final “Songs of the Summer” chart, posted September 17th.

But, women do chart more often than male artists

Historically, you can also look at which particular artists show up multiple times in Billboard’s year-end lists to get a rough idea of the battle of the superstar sexes from different eras. We graphed the male and female artist from each year with the most songs on the final top 100 — a sort of king and queen of pop for every year in our dataset. That timeline reveals that, beginning in the mid-80s, female superstars such as Madonna, Janet Jackson, Beyonce, and Rihanna are more likely to dominate charts than male superstars, who rarely chart more songs than the top female in recent years.

The male (blue) and female (red) artist with the most songs on each year’s Billboard year-end list from 1951–2015. Graphic by Diego Garcia-Olano. Data: Billboard.

Pop, rock, metal: How do genres stack up?

We then broke the top 10,000 streamed songs from this summer down by genre to see if certain types of music are more gender-balanced than others. As you can see in the graphic below, no genres break the “glass ceiling” for equal female time, but some do better than others; most notably, pop and rock, both of which still top out at around 25% of total streams (once again, Beyonce and Taylor would likely boost the pop numbers even higher). Punk, metal, “mood” music, and, most surprisingly, R&B/jazz/blues all come out extremely patriarchal, with only tiny slivers of female artists grabbing listens.

The percentage of male, female and mixed artists for the top 10,000 most-streamed songs on Spotify U.S. from May through September 2016, broken out by genre group. Graphic by Diego Garcia-Olano. Data: Spotify, Gracenote.

No matter how you slice the data, the results are pretty bleak: across history, across genre, and across modern-day streaming, women artists trail far behind men. Even when combining “mixed” performers with the female category, male musicians command more than half of charts, typically by 3 or 4 times the share of female musicians. While “music star” is an atypical occupation, these lopsided gender proportions are eerily similar to gaps seen in science, technology, and the financial industry for female representation and wages. Despite the high-profile women currently ruling the music world, there’s still a long way to go before the playing field is truly level.

The Clarify data team is Manish Nag, Ian Anderson, and Nathan Stein.