Women in Music – Girls Allowed? 

26th February 2018

2017 was another significant year for women in the music business: the fourth Women in Music Awards celebrated a myriad of female driven achievements for influential women across the UK industry; Adele won a record breaking five Grammy Awards; and Ariana Grande and her team organised a monumental benefit concert for victims of the Manchester Arena attack earning the respect and admiration of the nation.

Despite the fact that women are making great strides in achieving in the music industry the societal challenge of gender inequality remains, as brought to the fore following the recent 2018 Grammy Awards where Alessia Cara was the only solo female artist to win a major award (with only 17 out of a total of 86 awards going to women or female-fronted bands), prompting the #GrammysSoMale social media movement. The issue was further highlighted at the 2018 Brit Awards last week where Dua Lipa made a speech dedicating her award to female artists and addressing gender representation commenting: “Here’s to more women on these stages, more women winning awards and more women taking over the world”.

It is clear that gender inequality is very real and widespread throughout the industry. The big picture numbers are quite staggering. By way of example, in 2017 a PRS Foundation Women Make Music report, launched to draw attention to the gender disparity, found that just 16% of all PRS songwriter and composer members were female.

In the live sector, a 2017 study reported by the BBC found that of more than 600 headline appearances across major UK festivals some 8 out of 10 top slots were occupied by all-male acts. This year, festival organisers have again already been criticised for featuring a lack of female artists; Wireless Festival including only 3 on the bill!

In the business generally, Billboard’s annual Power 100 ranking for 2017 (which recognises some of the music industry’s greatest “visionary label bosses, tech gurus, artist managers and media moguls”) featured only 15 women, none of whom made the top 10. The list goes on…

The music industry is not alone in this regard and such challenges are common to the entertainment industry as a whole and indeed beyond, as demonstrated by the Time’s Up initiative (created by hundreds of women in the film and television industry to advocate, amongst other things, for gender equality). The open letter published to launch the initiative commented on the “struggle for women to break in” and “to rise up the ranks”.

So why is there such an overwhelming gender imbalance? There are two key reasons frequently cited. Firstly, industry culture and attitudes, in particular that decision makers in the business e.g. the festival owners, the promoters, the label executives etc are predominately men and that this lack of female representation at the top filters down the chain.  Secondly, women often progress to a certain point in their careers and then decide to have children, and the demands of the industry are just not conducive to continuing with both.

I write this article as someone who is only too aware of the real day to day challenges in juggling a career and family life, as a mum (to a 16 month old) who has recently returned to work. These include childcare issues, the practicalities of breastfeeding, sleep deprivation, managing with children who are unwell, the guilt that arises when leaving young children to pursue a career, to name a few. In addition, there is the practical challenge of being able to return to work on a basis that allows sufficient flexibility.

For UK employees there is a legal framework intended to provide some protection for mothers returning to work including the requirement on employers to take flexible working requests seriously. Nevertheless it seems that making the transition and changing attitudes towards flexible working is a slow process. Radio 1 DJ Annie Mac, in an interview in Music Week recently commented on this very issue: “Working in music is a real lifestyle choice and that doesn’t suit being a mother. I don’t think the idea of flexible working is ingrained in the music industry yet and it’s such a shame because it is losing so many incredibly talented women in the prime of their careers.”

Of course, for many in the industry, e.g. artists, DJ’s, writers, managers, producers, there is no protection at all if they are self-employed. Generally this means that there is no maternity pay, no security of a job after having a child and no support whatsoever with childcare. For performing artists there is often the added and unrealistic media pressure on mothers to “bounce back” to their former weight and appearance, not to mention the practical difficulties that arise when touring. It is inevitable that such practical, physical and emotional challenges will have an impact on the sustainability of careers of women within the industry. To this end greater support and awareness is needed.

The #GrammysSoMale and #TimesUp movements have certainly put the issue of gender inequality under the spotlight in the last few weeks. There are also some signs of possible improvement in the UK, for example following a parliamentary roundtable discussion related to the PRS Women Make Music initiative Matt Hancock, Minister for Digital and Culture, recognised the importance of encouraging women in the music industry and indicated that the government is currently undertaking a review of its industrial strategy. In addition, Festival Republic has launched a three-year “ReBalance” programme in an attempt to tackle the problem.

Whilst there is greater awareness of the issue and certain initiatives are being put in place it is clear that there is still a long way to go. I echo the comments of Annie Mac that there is a responsibility on those decision makers in the industry to address the imbalance and encourage a more inclusive industry. We should be asking ourselves: what message are we sending to future generations of young women?