Pop music certainly seems like an industry with some gender equality. While Hollywood has been criticized recently — accused of portraying women in a negative light and not hiring enough women — the titans of pop music are typically women. When we think "superstar" on the music scene in the United States today, the first names that come to mind are women: Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj. But a close look at the Top 40 tells a different story.
It would be it would be easy to assume that in terms of the most played and most popular music in America, women are not only doing fine, they're leading. Gender disparity doesn't seem like a problem when Taylor Swift has three songs in the Top 40 and the number one selling record of 2014. But it is.
Top 40 in 2015 by the numbers
The Top 40 has long been the holy grail for pop music. Snagging a Top 40 spot reflects that an artist is resonating with the American population. Her song is being played on the radio, people are buying it, people are watching the music video. Streaming has changed how quickly the Top 40 changes and how different it is from the other Billboard charts (like R&B/ Hip Hop, Latin, etc). But women are underrepresented in the top tier of music.
2015 is half over, which is as good a time as any to do a thorough count of how women are doing in the music industry right now. To do this analysis, I looked at the first 26 weeks of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, starting with the week of January 3 and spanning through the week of June 27 — the exact halfway point for the Top 40 this year.
What I found was that women only make up 29% of the Top 40 so far in 2015, when you count for the number of performers who have landed themselves on the charts. In total, 114 songs have made it into the Top 40 this year, including some obvious hits like "Uptown Funk" and some surprise appearances like "Work It" by Missy Elliot.
Of those 114 songs, only 33 were performed by female performers. 18 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 all of the songs that simply blipped into the top 40 for a couple of weeks and then slipped out. For songs staying at least 5 weeks in the Top 40, the gender breakdown looked like this: 27% female, 19% male + female, and 54% male — almost identical to the numbers we found for the entire Top 40.
There's also a disparity when you look at only the highest-performing songs. Only three songs have squatted in the Top 40 for the entire first 26 weeks of the year: "Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars, "Thinking Out Loud" by Ed Sheeran, and "Shake It Off" by Taylor Swift. One woman, two men.
Why does this disparity exist?
When I did this same analysis earlier this year for music festivals in the United States, I found a big gap between male performers and female performers. This year, women made up only 10% of the music festival circuit. The Top 40 is slightly better — since 29% of performers in the Top 40 are women, that means that at least women have a presence at the most highly-profitable, most highly-distributed level of the music industry. But if women are 50% of the population, why aren't they 50% of the popular music chart?
The easiest (and probably most offensive) hypothesis for why women don't have more of a presence in the Top 40 is that maybe listeners don't like listening to women as much as they like listening to men. We'll go ahead and ignore that Beyoncé made $229 million on the Mrs. Carter World Tour, and that Taylor Swift sold more 4.5 million copies in an era when album sales are presumably dead. Looking just at the Top 40 for 2015, that hypothesis still doesn't ring true.
In general, songs by women had slightly more staying power than songs by men on the chart. Songs by women stayed in the Top 40 for, on average 9.48 weeks. Songs by men stayed for 9.11 weeks (closer to the total average of 9.18 weeks). Once a song by a woman made it into the Top 40, then, it was more likely that it would stay there for a few weeks.
There are other parts of the music industry in which gender disparity (unfortunately) doesn't come as a surprise — we don't see as many female djs, songwriters, engineers, producers, or label executives as we do male. But 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.
It's not clear why — or what the problem is — but there is a problem.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.