Culture  /  Visualization

Women are Superstars on Stage, but Still Rarely Get to Write Songs

Songwriting credits since 1958, broken down by gender.

Women singing the songs that they wrote might seem like a trifling detail, but it actually suggests something more vital: you cannot talk about the history of music without talking about men actively limiting the musical activities that women were allowed to participate in, sometimes via physical or sexual violence.

From a nameless male author in 1860 being disturbed by women having to straddle a cello in order to play it to composer Gustave Kerker expressing his distaste for how certain instruments distorted female faces to critic George Upton writing in his book Woman in Music that women’s emotions made them great song interpreters (i.e., vocalists) but not great songwriters, men have continually tried to define what is appropriate for women to do in music.

When you listen to women who have worked in the industry, you’ll see that these attitudes have persisted. In an interview with Carol Connors, a songwriter who worked on a number of films including Rocky and The Rescuers, she described how, “It was very hard to break into the business without working with a man.” That’s why many women songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s often wrote with their husbands or boyfriends.

More recently, Sophia Somajo, a co-writer on Britney Spears’s number one hit “3”, noted in 2018 that, “Being young and a woman [she] could only be a singer, and that was it.” She wasn’t trusted as a writer until she first proved herself as a vocalist.

The data reflects these experiences. According to a report by USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, women represented between 11-14% of songwriters from 2012 to 2022, a range that hasn't changed much in 60 years.

In 2022, Top 5 Billboard songs had 228 songwriting credits, but only 33 were women (14% of the total).

It's also not just songwriting. That same study by USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that women are underrepresented as some of the most powerful voices in the music industry: artists, songwriters, and producers. This imbalance then translates to awards, accolades, and who gets celebrated for their work. In the last decade, only 13.9% of Grammy nominees from the biggest categories (Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Best New Artist, and Producer of the Year) were women.