On Saturday night at a glittering ceremony in London, the pop star Harry Styles was named artist of the year at the Brit Awards, the highest honor at Britain’s equivalent of the Grammys.
After punching the air as he headed onstage, the singer then thanked his family, his mother and his former bandmates from One Direction.
But to some watching the televised ceremony in Britain, the acclaim for the pop icon was a little soured because Styles triumphed in a category that did not have a single female nominee — an unintended consequence of the decision a little more than a year earlier by the Brit Awards to merge its categories for best male and best female artist of the year into one gender-neutral top prize.
For the past few weeks, prominent figures in Britain’s music industry, and even some politicians, have been discussing the effects of that change on the visibility of female musicians here.
At a time when other major cultural award shows — including the Tony Awards and the Academy Awards — are facing pressure to include nonbinary artists, the experience at the Brits shows the difficulties that can arise from removing gendered categories.
Onstage, Styles made it clear he was conscious of the conversation. “I’m very aware of my privilege up here tonight,” he said, “so this award is for Rina, Charli, Florence, Mabel and Becky.” Those are the names of five female British pop stars — Rina Sawayama, Charli XCX, Florence Welch, Mabel and Becky Hill — who were not nominated.
For much of the past decade, the British Phonographic Industry, or BPI, which organizes the awards, has broadcast its efforts to make the event more inclusive. But three years ago, the organization faced a dilemma after the singer Sam Smith announced they were nonbinary and used they/them pronouns.
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That made the pop star — and frequent Brit Award winner — ineligible for the show’s artist of the year awards, which had long been split into “best male” and “best female” categories.
When the BPI announced that it would drop gendered categories for the 2022 awards, the move was praised by British musicians and newspapers as long overdue.
That decision did not immediately lead to the exclusion of women: Last year, Adele won the first best artist prize. “I understand why the name of this award has changed,” she said at the 2022 ceremony, “but I really love being a woman and being a female artist.”
This year, however, the nominees list included four men alongside Styles: the rappers Stormzy and Central Cee, the dance act Fred Again.. and the singer George Ezra.
Francine Gorman of Keychange, an organization that aims to increase female and nonbinary involvement in Europe’s music industry, said in a recent interview that the all-male list was “a real step backward” for inclusion.
“We’re faced with five men, and they’re supposed to be representative of every British artist making music today,” she said.
Smith — who was in the running for two awards at Saturday’s event — also criticized the all-male nominees in a recent interview with The Sunday Times, a British newspaper. “There’s so much incredible female talent in the U.K. — they should be on that list,” they said. (Smith’s representatives did not respond to an interview request for this article.)
On Wednesday, concern about the issue even made it to Britain’s parliament, where the Women and Equalities Committee was holding an inquiry into misogyny in music. Caroline Nokes, the committee’s chair, said afterward that she thought that the Brit Awards had acted “too soon” to remove gendered categories, given the significant barriers women face to building careers in music.
In an era when some people in Britain see conflicts between women’s rights and those of transgender and nonbinary people, the absence of female nominees for the top award touched a nerve, though most commentary has focused on the barriers facing women in music.
The BPI has not announced any steps to avoid another all-male shortlist at next year’s awards. YolanDa Brown, a saxophonist and the BPI’s chair, said in a video interview this week that the organization would review the nomination process and determine if any changes were needed to support women. That could include expanding the number of nominees, she said, but she would not guarantee that any measures would be taken.
“Change and evolution is uncomfortable,” Brown said. The success of the move to gender-neutral categories should be judged over a longer time period, she added, noting that “this is just the second year.”
The Brits’ best artist category has strict eligibility criteria. Acts must have released either a Top 40 album or two Top 20 singles, within a yearlong period, to make the longlist. This year, only 12 female acts and one nonbinary act qualified, compared with 58 men. The awards’ voting body, made up of some 1,200 music industry insiders, then chooses nominees from the longlist. This year’s voting bloc was 52 percent female.
An all-male shortlist “was always going to happen sooner or later” because of the unequal nature of Britain’s music industry, said Vick Bain, a consultant on diversity issues and the president of Britain’s Incorporated Society of Musicians. Women make up only about 20 percent of artists, and 14 percent of songwriters, signed to British record labels and publishers, Bain said.
Bain said the one positive aspect of the exclusion of female and nonbinary acts was that “it’s shone a spotlight” on that inequality. Women are similarly underrepresented in the British and American movie industries, Bain said, so the Academy Awards could expect similar problems if the academy were to do away with gendered acting categories.
In 2020, the BAFTAs, Britain’s main film awards, made a host of changes to try to increase the diversity of its honorees. That included reserving half of the spots on the longlist for the best director prize for women. Yet at this year’s awards, just one female director was among the final six nominees.
Before Saturday’s awards, few British musicians commented directly on the backlash. Representatives for more than 20 British pop acts declined interview requests for this article, including the publicists for all 12 female artists who were eligible for this year’s award, as well as all five of the representatives for the male nominees.
Bain said the lack of diversity at the Brits requires action across Britain’s music industry, not just from the awards themselves. Record labels should sign more female acts and provide them with the same marketing support as male stars, she said, while festivals should book more women and more radio stations should play their music.
Until those wider shifts happen, award shows will “have to be prepared to keep changing” their procedures to stay inclusive, said Bain, who noted that it was true of film awards as well as the Brits.
On Saturday night, some acts suggested the Brits needed to up its game. When asked about the lack of female nominees for best artist on the Brits red carpet, Charli XCX told a BBC reporter that female musicians were “doing everything right.”
“I don’t think it’s our fault,” she said. “I think it might be theirs.”