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The Grammys’ diversity problem defended with maths

By | Published on Friday 16 February 2018

Grammy Awards

America’s Recording Academy has sent out a letter attempting to placate the increasing number of people criticising the lack of gender diversity at this year’s Grammy Awards. The letter reassures those critics that ‘math’ – as they’d presumably say – proves there isn’t actually a problem. Though, they add, there is a problem and they’re dead set on sorting it all out. Just as long as we all first agree that there isn’t a problem.

The controversy around the lack of gender diversity at this year’s Recording Academy-organised Grammys followed criticism last year about the lack of ethnic diversity.

In both cases the boss of the Recording Academy, Neil Portnow, has done a very good job of making things worse. Either by denying there is a problem at all, or – this year – by basically blaming the lack of women performing or winning at the Grammys on a lack of women making music. Portnow later said his words had been taken out of context. Which in some cases they had. Though the words were just as stupid when taken very much in context.

Portnow has now set up a task force to investigate the lack of diversity at the Grammys. Though an increasing number of people are wondering whether the old white men that predominantly run the Recording Academy are the best people to reinvent America’s big music awards bash into something that actually reflects the modern music industry, and which celebrates all the music embraced and enjoyed by America’s diverse population.

This is possibly why the Academy has now written to its members to insist that the problem here isn’t with the Grammys but the music industry itself. The argument being that the low representation of women at the Grammys is merely a reflection of the small number of women making music today.

They back this up by delving into a report by academics at USC Annenberg. The top line stats from that report have actually been used as a stick to beat the Grammys with. However, the Recording Academy reckons that if you dig deeper the same stats actually provide a defence for the male dominance at its awards show.

The Academy writes: “In establishing current levels of representation across the music industry, the study states that only 22% of performers are women; 12% of songwriters are women; and 2% of producers are women. Aggregating the total number of performers, songwriters, and producers, we see that women comprise 12% of the total music creator population. These figures are necessary for meaningful analysis”.

The letter then compares the percentage of women in its nominee lists with those industry stats. Among the comparisons it makes, the letter states: “Across all 84 categories, 17% of Grammy nominees are female – compared to 12% industry index. 36% of Best New Artist nominees are women – compared to 22% industry index. 21% of Song Of The Year nominees are women – compared to 12% industry index”.

It then adds: “There have also been questions about the makeup of our membership. Because we don’t require demographic information, the data we have is incomplete. However, we want to share what we do know: 21% of our voting membership are women – compared to 12% industry index. 11% of our Producers & Engineers Wing members are women – compared to 2% industry index”.

Having run through the data, the letter goes on: “It means that the gender composition of our membership and nominations reflect that of the music community, according to the study. But it’s not enough to reflect the community. We must be leaders in moving our industry toward greater inclusion and representation. Women are 50% of our world. We need their voice and presence at every level”.

So, to conclude, the industry has a problem, not the Grammys. The Grammys is just a reflection of the industry’s problem. But the Grammys should help to the industry tackle its problem. Because that would in turn solve the Grammys’ non-problem.

It is true that there is often a severe lack of gender diversity in the wider community of artists, songwriters and record producers. Even in years when female artists dominate the charts, the session musicians, co-writers and studio personnel contributing to those chart-topping records are often predominantly male.

That’s not just an American problem. Though in the UK, work has been underway for a while now to tackle the various issues that create this disparity. The PRS Foundation in particular has been spearheading and supporting initiatives to try to encourage and enable more women to pursue careers in music making. If the Grammys team are genuinely committed to increasing diversity in music, learning from programmes of that kind would be a really good starting point.

That said, while on average women may make up only 12% of the music creator population at large in the US, female writers and artists are behind way more than 12% of the best music being put out there. Partly because the lack of diversity isn’t so marked when it comes to pop stars. Therefore, maths alone does not explain or justify the lack of gender diversity in the Grammy winner lists and TV show.

A much more likely explanation is that when you have an awards show mainly run by old white men, they are much more likely to give stage space to another bunch of old white men – like, say, U2 – rather than the Grammy-nominated young woman behind one of the most exciting albums of the previous year.

However you crunch the stats, if the Recording Academy doesn’t also address that issue, it will still find itself running an awards event that seems ever more irrelevant as every year goes by.