Four Ways to Empower Women In Latin Music: Becky G, Karol G & Top Execs on Creating Change

From left: Becky G, León, Guerrero and Karol G.

Only seven songs with a woman as the lead artist reached the top 50 of Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart in 2017 (four were by Shakira, the only female act to have a solo track on the list). Expanding that criteria to include women featured on male-fronted songs ups the total to only 10 and includes remixes with artists best known outside Latin music (Cardi B, Beyoncé). But even those paltry numbers improve on recent years -- in 2015, only one woman reached the chart’s top echelon (Shakira again, as a featured act on Maná’s “Mi Verdad”). In 2016, there were none.

“There are not many of us succeeding, let alone working together, because society and the industry tell us that there can only be one” female Latin star, says Becky G, whose “Mayores” hit No. 3 on Hot Latin Songs last October.

In February, the Chilean music-news site Somos Ruidosa found that only 14 percent of all nominees for the 2017 Latin Grammy, Billboard Latin Music and Spanish 40 Principales awards were women. At an executive level, meanwhile, the absence of women is especially acute -- no Latin major label has ever had a woman president in any territory.

“Across the board, there are problems. This puts women at risk of not being able to participate in a craft at which they are equally talented,” says Dr. Stacy Smith, founder and director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, where she has published much-cited reports on inequality in entertainment.

At the 2018 Billboard Latin Music Conference, Smith will join a panel of female industry leaders to unveil landmark data on the presence of women across music industry roles. Here, she and her fellow panelists propose strategies to address the industry’s overall gender imbalance.

Sign And Foster More Female Acts

Urban music dominates the Latin charts, and up until the past 12 months, labels were not signing or pushing female artists in this realm -- in large part because, according to several industry sources, it was widely believed that women didn't want to perform reggaetón or watch other female acts do so. “That [kind of] mythology often perpetuates who gets access and opportunity to the detriment of what consumers may want or desire,” says Smith. But more recently, urban-leaning artists Karol G and Natti Natasha have been pushed with the same force as their male counterparts, with impressive results. (Natasha’s “Criminal” video has notched over 1 billion views.) More widespread change, though, needs to begin at a deeper level. “What female executives are scouting talent?” asks Smith. In the United States, very few. However, Smith’s research found that female acts are slightly more likely to work with female songwriters. “That is suggestive that females are advocating for more females when they occupy those spaces.”

Feature Women On Hits

Working with Nicky Jam early in her career was a game-changer for Karol G: It gave her cred, as did her 2017 track with Bad Bunny, “Ahora Me Llama.” “Collaborating with a big act gave me the opportunity that media and radio weren't,” she says. “I finally had a foot in the door.” Natasha’s big break came with Ozuna (“Criminal”) and Becky G’s with Bad Bunny (“Mayores). “In urban music, we need male acts to give us the entree. Once that door opens, we have to back it up. But we need that door to open,” adds Karol G.

Promote Female Executives

In the past 15 years, only one female executive has led a U.S. Latin label, either major or independent (Diana Rodriguez, as senior vp of Capitol Latin in 2010). Currently, Adriana Restrepo of Codiscos in Colombia is the only woman label president in the region. But put women in top executive positions, says Spotify head of music cultures Rocio Guerrero, and you see the direct cause and effect. At Spotify, she says, Latin lists reflected the male-heavy Billboard charts until “we started to talk about [gender imbalance] and put it in the back of programmers’ minds.” While 18 months ago there were one or two songs by female acts on Baila Reggaetón, one of Spotify’s top five playlists worldwide and a huge indicator of success for the platform, today, “we have a minimum of 10 songs” led by or featuring women on that list. “We are testing songs more inclusively.”

Mentor The Next Generation

“I went from being in marketing to being a profit generator, and my life changed,” says Rebeca León of when she was tapped to head AEG Live’s Latin division in early 2007. “When it comes to money and power, [girls] don’t have a lot of examples. It’s about teaching girls how to get money and power.” For León, now president of her own management company, Lionfish Entertainment, it meant literally going to a therapist to learn how to negotiate. “Growing up in an environment where women have traditional roles, that’s the first hurdle.” In the music industry, women often fill middle-management positions or senior positions in legal and marketing, two narrow areas where they’re “welcome,” according to multiple female executives. “Women who have success in this industry are seen as ambitious and pitiless,” says Inma Grass, a partner at digital distributor Altafonte. “It’s important that as women, we support those who are coming after us. And we have to get men to be on our side.”

This article originally appeared in the April 21 issue of Billboard.