Today’s post is an extended version of a speech I gave on International Women's Day, March 8th 2023.
The topic is the Myth of Meritocracy.
What is the meritocratic myth?
It is for instance when people say “We don't need quotas to get more non males into management, or more non male artists exhibited in the museums, or promote more non male authors etc. - we just need ‘the best’”. As if the two are mutually exclusive to each other.
Meritocracy means that you are chosen/valued based on your merits. And in theory of course this sounds fair, but we all know that the reason why there’s only one female author represented in the Danish literary canon, isn’t because female authors aren't as good as male. But because the people who are deciding who should be a part of the canon have a lot of unconscious biases.
I hope this is not news to you!
In spite of this there is still a strong narrative that it’s always ‘the best’ candidate who gets the job, the grant etc.
That it is possible to be objective in a hiring or selection process.
Despite the many surveys, statistics etc. stating the opposite.
And that’s the Myth of Meritocracy - right there!
If we take a look at the business I’m in, which is the music business, there's also a strong narrative that the one who makes the best music, plays the best and/or works the hardest gets the gig, the success, the career etc.
So how do you assess what is the best?
A report from 2022 by KVINFO (The Danish Knowledge Center for Gender and Equality) on gender inequality in the Danish music industry states that more than a third of the women and almost every other non cisgendered experience that their gender and look has a large influence on the assessment of their talent and musical abilities. Which is a lot higher than among the men, where 4 percent have the experience that their gender and 11 percent that their looks have an influence on the assessment of their abilities.
Another issue addressed in the report is that women often experience contradicting expectations. On the one hand they are expected to act feminine and use their gender to advance their career and on the other hand not to use their gender because it’s not viewed as professional. And that puts women in a very locked position; You're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't!
Women also often experience having to receive criticism based on their gender. Often with expressions like “demanding”, “creating conflict” and other things that have nothing to do with their musical abilities or work ethic.
Another important issue is the streaming services and their algorithms, which not surprisingly have a lot to say about how we consume music. And also how it is created - but more about that a little later.
Someone might intervene and say that algorithms are artificial intelligence and therefore not biased. Of course we all know that is not true.
When talking about algorithms, we should take a really good look at the large - especially North American - tech companies. In other words: Silicon Valley.
Here too women only make out a fourth of the employees and only 11% have managing positions.
And parallel to the report by KVINFO I mentioned before, an analysis of 248 performance reviews from different American tech companies show that women get negative personal criticism that men don't. Women are told to watch their tone, to step back, are called bossy, abrasive, strident, aggressive, emotional and irrational. Again a lot of adjectives that have nothing to do with their talent and work ethic.
On top of this you can make the observation that more than 40% of women leave the tech industry after 10 years compared to men where it’s only 17%. A report from Center for Talent Innovation shows that the women don't leave the companies because of family reasons or because they don't like the work, but because of ‘workplace conditions’, ‘undermining behavior from managers and ‘a sense of feeling stalled in one’s career’. An article in the Los Angeles Times also highlights that the women left because they kept getting passed up for promotions or had their projects dismissed.
Now why is that important to us? Of course because a great part of our lives involves some kind of technology and because algorithms play a huge role in our everyday lives, and both feed off of and control our behavior. Algorithms that are developed and programmed by people. Most often white middle class men.
Think about the people who treat our data and make money on them. These people who are developing and improving our products on the basis of our data, all more or less belong to the same demographic, and have the experiences and world views similar only to a very limited amount of people in this world. And that's when it becomes problematic and relevant to us.
Because whether we want it or not, the algorithm controls a huge part of our lives, and it probably won't be less in the future.
I can also recommend watching Last Week Tonight with John Oliver from February 26th 2023 where the topic is AI. Among other things we’re introduced to the term “Pale Male Data”. This occurs for instance in self-driving cars that don't recognize darker skin as well as lighter on the pedestrians they should be trained not to hit! The problem is the lack of diversity in the data used to program the algorithm. And that brings us back to the people handling the data, and their experiences and world views.
Let us return to the streaming platforms. As mentioned earlier there are studies that show that for instance Spotify not only influences what we hear, but also how the music is created.
The goal for most artists is to be included on the big playlists which is why more and more artists take that into account from the very beginning - even when they are writing and producing the music. Pertaining to both genre, length, production style and so on - but especially length is important. Most new pop songs don't last more than 3 minutes because everything over 30 seconds counts as a stream. So if a user listens to your track for more than 30 seconds, it counts as a stream and then it pays. Which means the more songs you can have people listen to the more money you can make.
Furthermore studies show that male artists are played more often than non male artists. This is both due to the fact that a lot of the people curating the big playlists are men, but it’s very much also because of the algorithm.
This is from the New York Post: “An analysis of 330,000 streaming music listeners over a nine-year period showed that only 25% of songs played were led by women. Their observations revealed that “on average,” the platform will start by spinning six tracks by men before choosing a female artist.”
At the same time the algorithm gives the user more of what they're already listening to, turning it into a vicious cycle: if you listen to a male artist you will most likely be introduced to more male artists.
And we can hopefully all agree that this has nothing to do with merits, hard work or talent - right?
This of course begs the question: What can WE do? Well there is one very easy thing you can do. Go and press play on a lot of non male artists and this way you can teach the algorithm about diversity!
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