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Gender Quotas for Festival Line Ups: Equality or Tokenism?

Out of over 50 acts at last year’s VIVID Live festival, only three featured women in any capacity. Is it time we had a gender quota for festivals?

Matthew Beard

Artwork by Ashley Goodall

Diversity matters. Slowly but surely, we're becoming increasingly conscious of the ethics of representation. From #OscarsSoWhite to the recent recommendation that ABC's Q&A increases the amount of women present on the program, there's a growing sense that if non-white, non-male professionals are to succeed, they need to see others who look like them succeeding. As Marie Wright Edelman wrote, "You can't be what you can't see".

Nor can you be what you can't hear.

Last year The Guardian reported that, from a sample of 12 UK music festivals – including major ones like Glastonbury and Creamfields – 86 percent of performers were male. Australia doesn't do much better. Last year's VIVID Live festival was criticised when, of over 50 acts, only three featured women in any capacity. And the numbers aren't very different in the USA.

These are only recent instances of a growing conversation about gender diversity in the music industry. In one sense, we shouldn't be surprised this conversation is going on. After all, gender equality in corporate workplaces has been the subject of widespread debate for over a decade. Why should music be any different? And, if there isn't any difference, should music festivals accept some social responsibility and impose gender quotas on their lineups?

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First things first; should music be any different when it comes to our expectations of gender diversity? The arguments in favour of gender diversity at festivals seem to be the same as they are elsewhere – they've been listed in detail in a report by the Centre for Ethical Leadership. In short, encouraging women's presence in industries broadens market appeal, attracts more women to participate in the industry or event, and supports women's rights to equal treatment, participation and representation. So why not pursue it?

Opponents might argue that actively forcing diversity is tokenism, that choosing in favour of women means potentially ignoring more qualified male acts who too deserve to be there. After all, it's not their fault they were born men, is it? Men's rights activists unite!

This argument is hard to make in music, though. For one thing, what does it mean to be 'qualified'? And how might we decide which of two similarly popular acts is more entitled to perform? Furthermore, the whole 'tokenism' argument presumes diversity isn't intrinsically valuable, but that claim needs to be argued for.

Encouraging women's presence in industries broadens market appeal... So why not pursue it?

There's every likelihood that three male acts might share a large chunk of audience. So, even if all three outperform a female act in terms of ticket sales, if the women's act has an entirely different audience they'd then be the better choice, wouldn't they? Just like if a Board of Directors is looking for a variety of insights, they would be foolish to hire a bunch of similarly qualified white guys. Even if each of them deserves to be there on merit, it doesn't follow that all of them deserve to be there together.

Another concern is that festival producers aren't convinced diversity leads to broader market appeal or (more crucially) greater profits. Festival organisers want guaranteed ticket sellers – and for reasons feminists have been talking about for decades – the top ticket sellers are usually men. Is it the responsibility of festival producers to change our tastes for us any more than it's the job of Macca's to get us craving kale chips rather than fries?

The argument that ethics comes second to profits isn't a new one, and it can seem easily dismissed – but if it's a genuine question of survival, you can see where the organisers are coming from. They're taking on all the financial risk – why should they take on any more? If people start buying more tickets to female acts, they'll book them!

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So then the question becomes; who is responsible for bringing diversity to the industry? Organisers claim it's the audience who buy the tickets, many musicians feel they could sell more tickets if festivals would have the courage to blood some diverse acts. And most listeners won't concede to having any gender bias in their listening habits, even if, coincidentally, most of their favourite acts are men.

And here's the rub – most of the barriers to diversity in representation – in any circle – aren't deliberate acts of oppression, they're the product of unconscious bias. When we picture a music artist, what do they look like? For many, I'd hazard they're young and white. In some genres – hip hop, for instance – it might be different but the dominance of men is likely to remain. This is despite the huge success of some female artists in a range of different genres today.

The tricky thing about unconscious biases is that it's harder to specify who's responsible for countering them. Many will hold that it's the people bearing the bias, but if they're not aware they're biased to begin with it's likely to be a slow burn.

And thus the argument for quotas – by enforcing a minimum standard for representation we force the issue. Festivals make their commit to diversity public and transparent – and artists and listeners can hold them accountable. Plus, we don't need to wait around for listeners to wake up to their own biases.

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But quotas are no panacea. People who are seen to benefit from quota systems are often seen as less qualified than those appointed 'on merit' – even by other people who have benefited from quotas! This suggests the 'tokenism' narrative around quotas is hard to shake, and might even be creating negative self-appraisals in the very people quotas are designed to help.

So rather than having arbitrary thresholds for diversity, maybe it's preferable for festivals to include diversity alongside other values – fun, integrity, artistry and so on – as one of the defining aspects of a festival. This means seeking diversity (and not just diversity of gender) as intrinsically valuable, rather than implementing quotas that make it seem like a necessary evil.

Dr Matthew Beard is a moral philosopher at The Ethics Centre. Follow their work on Twitter here.

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