Could Quotas Solve Triple J’s Gender Problem?

This weekend, triple j counted down the Hottest 100 songs of the last 20 years. Eight of them were fronted by women.

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Apart from ‘Wonderwall’ getting #1 and Powderfinger only being in the list twice, there was nothing too surprising in triple j’s Hottest 100 of the last 20 years, which was counted down this weekend. There was the right number of white, yearning dudes (heaps), we collectively realised those novelty songs (you know, ‘Asshole’, ‘Everyone’s Free To Wear Sunscreen’ etc) belong in the vaults, and female leads fronted eight songs. Eight. fronted five songs (four more featured a woman as guest vocalist/co-lead).

The worst part is that this is an improvement. In 2009’s Hottest 100 Of All Time there were no female-fronted acts, and only three women in any of the bands at all. And while that countdown might have been the worst of the bunch, a holistic view of the history of the yearly poll doesn’t shift the scales all that much. Of the annual Hottest 100s of the last 20 years (no “all times”, just end of year polls), the number of women in the top 10 averaged out at 7.63%. Women make up over 50% of the population. So what’s happening?

Kevin Mitchell (Bob Evans/Jebediah) preemptively listed his top 20 favourite female artists of the last 20 years, and good on him. He’s reminded us that yes, women can write, record and play pretty great music. So why are they always missing from these polls?

To counter the wrath currently being leveled at triple j on Twitter, it will be argued that this Hottest 100 has been voted in by the listeners. It’s democratic! The radio station didn’t choose the list!

Some people will be satisfied with that. But let’s explore why else it might be the case.

Triple j is playlisted so that most of what you hear is determined by their music programmers. Each week, a number of songs are selected from the hundreds of tracks sourced and submitted, and each week you hear these songs — and their predecessors — on the radio.

Of last week’s feature album, rotation adds, and spots, two out of twelve artists featured women. The week before was no better – out of the fourteen acts added, only two had women in them. That’s not even two women out of fourteen, but two women among 39 musicians. Or just above 5%*.

At what point do we stop saying “it’s just what people like”, and start reflecting on the decisions that help to inform what’s popular?

What About Merit?

Let’s step outside of music for a second. In the ridiculous world of Australian politics, we see another massive gap when it comes to gender equality. At the last election, women made up 23.9% of the Liberal Party’s elected members, while the ALP had 35.6%. It’s still not an even split, but the ALP has been practicing affirmative action policies for the last 20 years, and it’s working: the proportion of women sitting on their side in Parliament has more than doubled. The Liberal Party, with their “merit-based” system, has been sitting at an average of 23.8% for the last 15 years. It hasn’t budged.

The claims from the Liberal party that women are elected by merit feeds into a perception that women just aren’t as great at leading as men. The claims sound pretty similar to the notion that the Hottest 100 is democratically elected, and there’s nothing we can do to change it. We’re led to believe that women just aren’t as great at making music people like.

It’s not true.

Music made by women is no better or worse — it’s just not as visible. When 95% of the musicians added to one of the most visible national music outlets are men, as they were in the last two weeks of programming, it’s no wonder we’ve grown up listening to and loving music made by men. And it’s no wonder that’s who we vote for when we’re given the chance to celebrate our favourites.

Less Women Are Making Music

Less women are making music, so there are less songs by women to choose from. The Australian Government’s arts funding and advisory board, the Australia Council, put out some stats last year that showed men are four times more likely to be writing songs than women, which is appalling, but not surprising. Of course you’re more reluctant to pick up a guitar and start writing, recording and playing music when so few of the musicians you look up to have a vagina like you do.

Less women are making music for a whole range of reasons, but one of them has to be because less women are being programmed on the radio. It’s a vicious cycle: we listen to less women-made music, because it gets played on the radio less, because there are less women making music. Because less people listen to them.

Things won’t change unless something breaks that circuit — and I’d say a pretty great place to start is with our national youth broadcaster.

Will Quotas Actually Work?

While affirmative action is a tricky and controversial remedy for inequality, it’s worked in other areas. Think quotas won’t work? Triple j has overcome much greater odds before.

Among a whole world of music, in the weekend’s poll 29% of the music you voted for was made by Australians. Ignoring that the rest of the world make music, there are 313.9 million Americans and 62.7 million in the UK — and only 23 million Australians. We make up slightly more than 6% of the population responsible for white, yearning dudes and their guitars, yet when it comes to music of the last 20 years we make up a whopping 29% of the best there is. So how does 6% turn into 29%?

Triple j celebrate the fact that they play 40% Australian music, a target they set for themselves which is 15% above the amount they’re required to play. And it’s a target that no one seems to mind. The impact that triple j’s commitment to Australian music has had on our listening habits continues to be massive, and the flow-on benefit this has had to the viability of our industry and the amount of music being made in Australia is inarguable. The Australian contingent from the weekend’s Hottest 100 is a pretty big testament to how much we, and triple j, love Australian music.

Triple j’s commitment to playing 40% Australian music is a commitment – not a quota — and it’s working. Having access to Australian music is important for our cultural identity, and it’s an importance that’s recognised not just in government quotas, but in the way triple j chooses to program. Perhaps there’s room within triple j’s programming to increase the visibility of women as creators, too.

Could the pathway to an over-representation of Australian music on triple j give us some tips on how we address an under-representation of female musicians? Since no one has come up with a better way forward, it may just be worth a try.

Eliza is a creative producer based in Sydney. Currently the Artistic Director at Underbelly Arts, Eliza has worked on creative projects for FBi Radio, Graphic Festival, as a Director of Sound Summit and the Executive Officer of MusicNSW.

* Of course the last two weeks of the station’s playlisting aren’t representative of their entire rotation. We crunched some numbers: of the top 100 songs played by triple j in 2012, there were 317 musicians. 31 of those musicians were female — or 9.78%. Station Manager Chris Scaddan has responded to scrutiny over the diversity of the poll’s results here.