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Reading and Leeds 2021: why do festival headliner lists keep ignoring female talent?

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Lauren Geall
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Billie Eilish

Reading and Leeds festival have doubled the number of headline acts in their 2021 line-up, but still, none of them are women. Why do festivals keep ignoring female talent?

It’s a well-known fact that the music industry has a problem when it comes to gender representation. Festival line-ups have illustrated the issue for years – in 2017, a study by the BBC found that 80% of all UK festival headliners in that year were male.

And despite the fact that more female artists are now beginning to be recognised by music awards shows (besides that awful Brits shortlist), it seems there’s still a lot of work to be done when it comes to ensuring equal on-stage representation.

Why? Because despite the ongoing conversation about the importance of equal representation when it comes to male and female artists, the 2021 Reading and Leeds festival line-up – which was published over the weekend – features zero women in headliner slots. 

The worst bit? They actually doubled the number of headliners for next year’s festival (they’re coming back “bigger and better” after 2020’s festival was cancelled because of coronavirus), but there are still no women being featured in any of those leading slots.

It’s worth noting that some women do feature further down on the line-up: stars including Doja Cat, Mabel and Beabadoobee are a welcome addition. But the lack of women in the headlining slots still doesn’t make a lot of sense – especially when Billie Eilish’s performance in 2019 drew one of the biggest crowds the festival has ever seen. And the argument that there “aren’t enough big female artists” doesn’t slide, either – according to Billboard’s top 100 artists at the end of 2019, two out of the top three artists were women.

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As was to be expected, people on Twitter were quick to point out the flaws in the line-up, with one user claiming the announcement was “a display of misogyny”.

“How can you double the headline acts to SIX and still have NO women,” read one response.

“No female headliners?” added another. “Out of all the incredible female bands and artists that could have been included? Embarassing.”

Reading and Leeds isn’t the only festival to have come under fire over the last couple of years for their lack of gender representation. In 2018, Lily Allen criticised Wireless festival for only including three female artists in their line-up, posting a version of the line-up poster to Twitter with all the male artists removed.

And Glastonbury festival has been criticised for its lack of female artists in the past, too. In the festival’s history, only two female soloists have headlined – Beyoncé in 2011 and Adele in 2017. However, the festival’s organiser Emily Eavis has said she is working towards a 50/50 balance for future line-ups. 

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All in all, it’s disappointing to see female artists continue to be overlooked for some of the biggest slots on the festival calendar, especially when there are so many talented women out there who are absolutely smashing it right now. 

The music industry is way behind when it comes to gender equality, and it’s about time they caught up, right?

Stylist reached out to Reading and Leeds festival for comment and haven’t received a reply. 

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