Gender Disparity at the Top of the Charts: A Data Visualization

Women get an unfair share of work as producers, songwriters, and musicians on #1 albums by Adele, Taylor, and Selena

I started this project after a series of conversations with a coworker in her early 20s, who (as a musician and producer) is looking ahead to a future of navigating this profession as one of the very, very few women working here.

Most people don’t realize how incredibly lopsided the technical fields of music recording, production and engineering are. The Average Jane might find it surprising that the gender disparity on these best-selling albums is more pronounced than in the offices of Apple and Google.

I worked out an approach to visualize the gender makeup of the production and writing credits on recent albums by female solo artists that had reached #1 on the Billboard 200 or Top Album Sales charts. Using data primarily from Discogs, the results are below—in an overview (first image), followed by images for the individual albums (multiple images below).

Data Overview

Why These Albums?

This isn’t a “female solo artist problem,” this is a systemic issue across the entire music production industry. Just eyeballing it, these breakdowns look about average, or a little better than their male counterparts.

Women are rarely encouraged to enter this field, and if they decide to go for it, can find the male-dominated environment hard to work in. And because there are so few opportunities to work on albums for chart-topping artists, female musicians and engineers are rarely given a shot. Major albums involve input from scores of people on the business side, with serious professional stakes in the project’s success — which usually translates to working with hitmakers and studio teams with long track records, who are overwhelmingly male.

The average listener doesn’t usually see this. The visual representations most listeners have of an album are its music videos and cover (for these albums: a photo of the artist, alone). Modern pop albums can involve dozens of musicians and engineers, and I think it’s helpful to see them that way, too.

But perhaps most importantly, I believe these chart-topping women have the power to turn this problem around…

An Open Letter to the Women at the Top of the Charts

Some of you have publicly commented on this: Adele, in this Rolling Stone interview, you describe how frustrating it is to be talked down to by a board room full of men, and the thrill of ruling the studio with Sia. Selena, here in this video, you highlight some great behind-the-scenes women on your team to support a gender equality campaign. Taylor, your Grammy speech was a shoutout to all the women out there on the grind.

Janet and Madonna, you’ve been using your art to expand the public’s idea of womanhood for decades.

As pop stars, you have a giant megaphone: your perspectives are heard by fans, the media, and by the public at large. But please don’t forget that you are also a major talent working in an important industry, and that carries a lot of weight, too. You have the ability to demand the implementation of working practices which realize your perspectives in a concrete way.

Show the badass studio women out there micing up guitar cabs, laying down drum tracks, and dialing in vocal settings that you really do have their backs, by including them in your creative process at every level— not just in front of the cameras.

Hell, if all y’all do this, you might even inspire an entire wave of women to get into music engineering and production. This could be the start of a turnaround for an industry that badly needs this to happen.

Also: consider the response from your fans. I would be over the moon if a major pop artist who regularly drops #1 albums (female or otherwise) publicly committed to working with more women on their next album. Think about what this might mean to a young girl, to see a pop star she deeply connects with making this kind of statement — and then totally following through on it.

Anyway look, I’m just some rando making charts on the internet… You have the clout, and the very real ability to enact these kinds of changes.

So why not give it a shot?

Click here for technical notes about this project.