Why women want to join the club
Tina is one of a growing breed. She’s a female bouncer – one of a group whose numbers have risen so sharply that now nearly one in nine of Britain’s nightclub door staff is a woman. She and her colleagues are the subject of a three-year research project, Women On the Door, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
It was prompted by the increased employment of female bouncers as a direct response to the burgeoning night-time economy.
This phenomenon, the subject of ongoing research by the Open University’s faculty of Social Sciences, has seen evening-led businesses – from legitimate clubs and bars to illicit trades such as drug dealing and prostitution – give towns and cities a wholly different night-time image from that which they promote during the day.
The rise of the night-time economy has been rapid. As an example, in 1997 the licensing capacity in Nottingham city centre was 61,000 outlets. Now it’s well over 100,000, and such leaps are replicated all over the UK.
Manchester’s licensing capacity has grown so much that it now stands at over a quarter-of-a-million.
“As the economy has flourished, so has the number of private security staff,” says Dr Louise Westmarland, a lecturer in Criminology and Social Policy from The Open University, and one of the social scientists on the Women On the Door project. Stricter regulations, she says, mean that gone are the days when doormen were employed in even the best clubs on a reputation for machismo and a propensity for violence. Not only does the Security Industry Authority now run “customer care” courses for door staff, but since the 2003 Licensing Act no club, pub or bar in Britain can get a licence unless at least one of its employees has attended one, and earned an SIA badge to prove it.
“Nowadays it’s much more difficult for someone to become a bouncer if, say, they have a criminal record,” says Westmarland, who carried out the research with Professor Dick Hobbs from the London School of Economics and Dr Kate O’Brien from the University of Kent. “The kudos of having a bouncer with, for instance, a reputation for having killed someone, is being squeezed out.”
All of which has opened the door for women to enter the profession.
But they are also there to meet needs – specifically, to deal woman to woman with increasing numbers of females who drink heavily and to search the growing numbers who enter clubs carrying drugs or weapons. In addition, the 2003 Licensing Act has given the authorities discretionary power to withhold a venue’s licence if it does not employ female door staff.
Female bouncers come from very varied backgrounds. The 50 women door staff interviewed by researchers in five cities had diverse previous work experience including as a kissogram, a dancer, a tax officer, a DIY store assistant, a lifeguard, a bus driver, a call centre worker and a recruitment consultant. “It’s an attractive job for a lot of women,” says O’Brien, who undertook the SIA training course as part of the research. “It pays well, the hours fit in around childcare and school runs, they meet people – and many love the buzz of a nightclub.”
Some already had employment histories of controlling an environment – one was a former prison officer, another an ex-RAF police officer and a third a matron at a girls’ private school.
And there were a significant number who, like many of their male colleagues, had grown up in an environment where being a party or a witness to violence was common.
“My mam’s family are quite rough,” says Mandy, 32. “You know how kids are, you go out and you have a fight and you get bashed so you come back in. I used to get bashed and sent back out until I won.”
This group, who because of their life experiences in violent communities were classified by the researchers as “the connected”, stressed how their cultural heritage had equipped them with the emotional and physical skills to deal with violence and fit into the hyper-masculine culture of door work.
The women say many of the club customers do not differentiate between male and female bouncers. “A lot of people are under the impression that a guy is not going to turn around and hit a woman,” says Gail. “But that’s not the case. If you get in the way of half the guys here they’ll just smack you back out of the way.
The guys don’t care whether they’re hitting a guy or a girl at the end of the day.”
The same woman reported being deliberately hit by a male colleague because she tried to stop him fighting with a customer he didn’t like. She recalled that he had accidentally punched her in the head, knocking her out, but when she came round and again tried to intervene, she says: “He said, ‘Well, I didn’t mean to hit you that time but you’re in my way this time’, and smacked me in the back of the head again, so that was me out cold again.”
This does not mean that the female bouncers necessarily view violence positively. “At the end of the day you’re not there to fight,” says one. “A good doorman isn’t one who fights his way out of everything, but who can talk the situation down without it turning to violence.”
The female employees see themselves as fitting into a traditionally masculine world. “A significant number of the women we spoke to referred to themselves as ‘doormen’,” says Westmarland. “They placed a high value on being accepted by their male colleagues as ‘one of the lads’.”
But the research concludes that women bouncers occupy “an exceedingly ambivalent position”. Their very employment on the door may appear to challenge an established order, yet the expectation – from their male colleagues – that they will sort out fights in the ladies’, or check handbags, or try to defuse what Westmarland describes as “girl trouble” reinforces traditional feminine roles.
One reason for the rise in female bouncers is a deliberate attempt by the club industry to promote a softer, more customer-friendly image.
What the social scientists’ research suggests, though, is that female staff are just as likely to become involved in violence as male staff.
“Women are perceived to have emotional qualities thought necessary for defusing situations without resorting to violence,” says Westmarland. “But we found they had to react to a situation so quickly there was often no time for their male colleagues to say, ‘You’re the calming influence, you go’.
And the women are more than prepared to wade in – those we spoke to had been in as many fights as the men they worked with.”
Women On The Door will inform the development of a new OU course in criminology
Why women want to join the club