In the first half of 2016, women made some of the biggest headlines as performers. Hell, the year started with Adele sitting at the top of the Billboard charts with her stunning single "Hello," and in her wake came Rihanna's unstoppable Anti and Beyoncé's stunning Lemonade. Despite monster albums this year by male performers like Kanye, Drake, and Chance the Rapper, when we think “superstar” on the music scene in the United States today, the first names that come to mind are women. But a closer look at the Top 40 reveals that our perception of equality in popular music is totally off-base.
The easiest (and most offensive) hypothesis for why men dominate the Top 40 chart is that men are simply making better music than women. This, of course, is a subjective analysis and one that is incredibly absurd. It's preposterous to argue that Shawn Mendes's "Stitches" is a better song than Beyonce's "Sorry" just because it has been on the charts for 15 more weeks.
At the halfway point of the year, we looked back at the first 27 weeks of the Billboard Hot 100's Top 40 (ending with the week dated July 2, 2016) and broke down exactly how women have been represented.
The Top 40 has long been the canon of American popular music. Snagging a spot in the Top 40 makes you royalty, your song recognizable by the millions of Americans who hear it blaring from storefronts and car windows. Streaming has changed the way the Top 40 is built: radio DJs no longer hold as much control, and music discovery platforms have created an idea of meritocracy. But the Top 40 isn't equal. It isn't even close.
Women only make up 24% of the Top 40 so far in 2016 when you count for the number of performers who have landed themselves on the charts. In total, 128 unique songs have made it into the Top 40 this year, including some obvious hits like “Love Yourself” (all year, baby) and some resurgent classics like “Purple Rain” by Prince.
Of those 128 songs, only 31 were performed by women. 22 songs were performed by a group containing at least one woman, and the rest were performed by men. This disparity remained even when I filtered out the extremes, songs that simply blipped into the Top 40 for a couple of weeks and then slipped out and raging hits that have stayed all year. For songs staying at least 5 weeks and less than 20 weeks in the Top 40, the gender breakdown looked like this: 20% female, 20% male + female, and 60% male —similar to the numbers we found for the entire Top 40. And none of these numbers are new for this year. In our calculations for the Top 40 for all of 2015, we found almost identical data: 26% female, 63% male + female, and 11% male.
The disparity gets even worse when we look at who is writing and producing the songs.
Most popular songs have more than one writer. It takes a village to raise a child, and an army to construct a perfect hook. So far this year the 128 Top 40 songs took 525 writers to create. Only 69 of them were women—a measly 13%.
This number, too, is concurrent with our data set for last year's Top 40 songs where 13.5% of songwriters were women. Another way to look at this number is to see how many songs had at least one female songwriter. There, the Top 40 fares much better with 50 of the 128 unique songs (or 39%) employing a woman to help write.
Only 2 songs had no male songwriters: Ruth B's "Lost Boy" and (surprisingly) Tim McGraw's "Humble and Kind." Sadly, that's twice as many all-female staffs as all of 2015's Top 40. The flip side of this, of course, says that 78 (61%) of Top 40 songs didn't have a single woman on the writing staff.
The story gets worse when we look at the gender disparity among Top 40 producers.
Of the 263 producers it took to create this year’s Top 40 songs, only 8% of them were women. Amazingly, even that low number is a staggering jump from last year. There is one reason for this: Beyoncé. Of the 20 female production credits in this year's Top 40, Beyoncé's songs brought literally half of them. Without Beyoncé's 10 songs that reached the Top 40 this year, this number would be a lot closer to what it was last year: 3.2%.
But 8% isn't a number we can, or should be comfortable with. Women only helped produced 19 of the 128 unique songs in the Top 40 this year.
Out of all 128 of this year's songs, women had a hand in 107 of them—be it performing, producing, or writing. But men touched every single song in this year's Top 40 except for one: Ruth B's "Lost Boy," a song she wrote, produced, and sings all by herself.
What we hear when we talk about pop music are the names of women: Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj. In 2016, women in music are highly vocal, strong, and independent artists, but they are also the minority.
The fact that women are so poorly represented in every aspect of the Top 40 in 2015 is frustrating because the conversation around women in music doesn’t ever even acknowledge the problem. It’s difficult to be upset that women are underrepresented in every category of music creation when the narrative presented is that they are totally dominating the field.
But it's not just the Top 40. There is no sector of the music industry where a massive gender disparity doesn't exist. It's even more obvious among female DJs, songwriters, engineers, producers, and label executives. There are fewer women performing in music festivals than men as well. Right now, the Top 40—the chart representing the most popular songs in America—doesn’t reflect the fact that women make up half of society at large. But if women are 50% of the population, why aren’t they 50% of the popular music chart?
It is true that so far this year, songs by women have a shorter staying power on the charts overall. Songs by women spend an average of 7.38 weeks on the chart, while songs by men spend 8.86 weeks, and songs by both men and women spend 7.45 weeks.
But if we only look at the middle of the chart (those lasting 5 to 20 weeks) the gender breakdown is more equal: 11 week average for female songs, 11.4 week average for songs by male + female songs, and 11.6 week average for male songs. So there's no solid basis with which to argue that listeners like male songs better. (In fact, last year's analysis found that songs performed by women had a longer staying power.)
The problem then is probably a pipeline issue: there aren't enough women making music in the first place for them to hold a giant presence in any sector of the industry. Maybe because women aren't encouraged to pursue music as a career, or maybe just because there isn't ample representation for them to admire and follow. The first step to solving any problem is recognizing that there is a problem. When women make up 50% of the population but less than a quarter of the music we consume en masse, we definitely have a problem.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.