Ladies’ nights: a reflection of deep-rooted discrimination and commodification of women
Originally published at the South China Morning Post on April 24, 2016.
When Canadian exchange student Wendy Tsui first came to Hong Kong, she was told that there was one attraction she couldn’t miss: ladies’ night.
Since the city hosted its first ladies’ night in 1994 - a promotional event where women pay less than men for drinks or entry charges - it’s become an iconic fixture of Hong Kong nightlife. But the practise is now under fire following a recent court ruling that such events were discriminatory, leading several bars to halt their ladies’ nights in response.
“It makes sense that people think it’s unfair ... but it’s a bit extreme,” said Tsui, 21, sipping from a plastic cup while out at Lan Kwai Fong on Thursday, the traditional night of the week for ladies’ night. “It’s a tradition, there are ladies’ nights in other places. It’s a tourist attraction.”
Rooted in controversy, the first ladies’ night in Hong Kong was hosted by Westworld, a club in Wan Chai that has since closed, as a way to draw customers into the lacklustre weekday club scene.
Although there were concerns that the practise would clash with anti-discrimination legislation in 1997, ladies’ night became highly successful, and quickly spread throughout the city.
Originally a western concept, ladies’ nights are banned in the United Kingdom, as well as certain parts of the United States.
The recent ruling came after the Equal Opportunities Commission filed a case on behalf of a male complainant accusing a Mong Kok club of breaching sex discrimination laws by charging men more than women for a drink. The judgement passed after the club’s operator failed to give any notice of opposition, and is under fierce criticism by several groups including the Hong Kong Bar and Club Association and the Liberal Party.
The case is significant because it has not only triggered questions regarding the boundaries of marketing strategies targeting specific groups, but also concerns regarding the state of gender-based discrimination in the city and the methods with which policy-shapers pursue gender equity.
For revellers in Lan Kwai Fong, the issue of discrimination isn’t at all pressing, and many were against banning the practise. Two Hong Kong women in their twenties suggested that clubs could hold a “men’s night” - a proposal also put forward by the coalition of bar operators - as a way to even the score.
Ryan Ashton, a 36-year-old expat from South Africa who has lived in Hong Kong for eight years, said he’s never once thought of ladies’ nights as discriminatory against men.
“I don’t think it’s unfair,” Ashton said, adding that the practise is ubiquitous in South Africa. “All it is, is a marketing tool to get men there. I think the name they have for it makes it seem like ladies are going to a particular bar.”
Others like Bryan Marshall, a 29-year-old recruiter and expat from the UK, thought the practise was unfair but not significant enough to protest about. “It’s something we grew up with. Girls get free drinks,” Marshall said. He scoffed at the idea of a “men’s night,” which he said would be highly unpopular.
When it comes to gender inequality in Hong Kong - many agree that the concept of ladies night is far from the most egregious issue. For instance, the pay gap between men and women has widened by HK$500 since 2011, and men earn a mean monthly salary that is HK$2,500 more than women, according to a report by the Census and Statistics Department last year.
But experts say that those looking at the issue as a case of discrimination against men may be missing the real controversy - that the practise is a reflection of society’s deep-rooted discrimination and commodification of women.
By using women to attract male customers, ladies night essentially commodifies women and uses them as tools to sell products,” said Puja Kapai, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong who specialises in human rights.
It also perpetuates stereotypes like women being incapable of paying for drinks, or reinforces problematic gender norms such as how it should be men who buy drinks on a night out, said Marco Wan, associate professor law at HKU.
We seem to have been using our anti-discrimination laws to not support the powerless, but an already privileged group in society
In a press release on Thursday, the EOC said that the ruling was intended to “heighten our community’s awareness to unlawful treatments on the grounds of sex or gender” and “rightfully assist a complainant.” It also suggested that the case would be used to gain clarity on the boundaries of business promotions to special groups.
While Kapai has no objection to the ruling, she wishes that the EOC - which has limited resources - had picked a more substantial injustice to tackle and highlighted an underprivileged group. Men are not immediately and traditionally recognised as one such group, she said.
“If the EOC was going to throw its weight against something, I wish it were something deeper in nature,” Kapai said. “We seem to have been using our anti-discrimination laws to not support the powerless, but an already privileged group in society.”
Su-Mei Thompson, CEO of The Women’s Foundation and an EOC member, said that the ruling was proper because setting a fee difference for the same service on the grounds of gender is unjust under the Sex Discrimination Ordinance.
She said that it made sense for certain concessions to be offered to disadvantaged groups who lack access to a necessary service, like reduced fares for old people on public transport.
But she said ladies’ nights were commercially motivated and therefore not comparable to those arrangements.
In response to Post inquiries, the EOC didn’t say specifically why it pursued the case over others, but pointed out that the Sex Discrimination Ordinance “gives equal protection to both women and men”, and that under it, “setting a fee difference on the ground of sex in the provision of the same service would amount to sex discrimination.”
Its statement read: “So can women be treated better than men in services or in buying goods? The answer is clear: not if it is simply based on your sex or gender. Likewise, imagine if men were charged less in the entrance fees to a cinema, simply due to their gender.”
Yet Laury Roland, a French expat who lives in Hong Kong, argued that women were an underprivileged group, although ladies’ nights are not necessary.
“It’s true that (ladies’ night) is not fair, but (men) have a lot of advantages,” Roland said. “We can have this one.”