Women at music festival.

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Every year, a similar image blows up on social media. It’s the iconic Reading and Leeds Festival line up poster, but with only a couple of names on it.

All the male artists have been photoshopped out, leaving the names of a few female musicians dotted around the page. When this image first went viral, it brought attention to a question that plagues the global music industry: where are the women?  

The festival industry has always had a gender diversity problem, with many large events coming under fire for their failure to book women. A study by Female:Pressure found that, between 2017-2019, only 20% of acts booked for the electronic music festivals it surveyed were female.  

After most festivals were forced to cancel in 2020 due to the pandemic, festival planners in the UK are hopeful about returning this summer. With the global crisis re-shaping both work and leisure, Internation examines the data behind ten music festivals planned for 2021 to see if anything has changed.

Explore the data

Reading and Leeds Festival has been in the spotlight before for its poor gender diversity. This year, however, women represent 41% of its line up. Despite this, not a single woman has been given a headline act at the 200,000 person capacity festival. 

Dance music is notoriously male-dominated. This trend is reflected by Creamfields and Electric Zoo: women make up only 7% and 8% of their line ups respectively. There are also only two female headliners between EDC Europe, Electric Zoo and Creamfields, despite these being three of the biggest dance festivals on the planet. 

Meanwhile, All Points East, a popular London day festival, is forging the path for gender representation. It has managed to achieve an almost even gender split across its line up, with 46% female acts and 29% female headliners. 

Why are women being excluded? 

Photo by Wendy Wei from Pexels

When organisers are asked about the poor representation of women at their festivals, they tend to cite problems including: the limited pool of female musicians, the higher cost of booking women and demand from audiences.

In 2019, Scotland’s TRNSMT festival director said “it will be a while” until there is a 50-50 gender balance on festival bills “because there’s far, far less female artists”.

Vick Bain, director of the F-list, disagrees: “Back in 2018, Emily Eavis, who runs Glastonbury, was sort of saying the same thing: there’s just not enough women, the pool of women isn’t big enough. And yet she came back with the 2020 lineup, which was equally balanced – it was amazing.”

Organisations including the F-list are creating directories of female performers to challenge the claim that it is hard to find women to perform and to help event planners look beyond their own networks.  

Barriers to entry 

It is true that women are less likely to rise to the top in a career in music. Of artists currently signed to UK music labels, only 20% are female. Systemic barriers are preventing many women from ever reaching the festival stage. 

One notable barrier is parental responsibilities, as women tend to take on the bulk of childcare. In the UK, parental leave for freelancers (which most musicians are), cannot be shared. This means that female musicians cannot split their maternity leave with their partners. 

Female artists also suffer from discrimination and harassment, which can discourage them from pursuing a music career. Research from the Musicians Union found that 48% of members have experienced sexual harassment at work, while 85% didn’t report this. 

In Bain’s research, she identifies additional barriers to women in music including: unsociable hours, the gender pay gap, technophobia, unconscious bias, and the lack of role models. 

The covid effect

Women make up 39% of global employment but account for 54% of job losses during this time.


Despite covid reshaping much of our lives, it seems to have had little impact on festival line-ups. It is likely, however, to detriment the position of women in music in the long term. The pandemic has hit women harder than men.

According to McKinsey, women make up 39% of global employment but account for 54% of job losses during this time. Female musicians are among the women forced to step back from their careers.

What can be done? 

Find out more about some of the organisations and initiatives working to get more women on stage.
[Subtitles available by clicking ‘CC’ in video]. For video credits, see YouTube description.

Despite the 2021 data indicating little improvement, there are some positive signs for the future. In 2019, Spain’s Primavera Sound festival achieved a 50/50 gender balance. Meanwhile, in Argentina, lawmakers have now enforced gender quotas on festival line-ups.

Some artists are also taking a stand: all-male band The 1975 have said they will only play gender-balanced festivals. 

For individuals wanting to make a difference, Bain emplores festival-goers to feedback to organisers: “Contact promoters on social media. Say I want to buy a ticket but I want to see a more diverse line-up or I’m attending but I don’t think the line up is good enough… Audience demand is going to insist that they start to change.”

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