How can UK nightlife improve for women and non-binary people?

Photo taken at Fèmmme Fraîche (@femmmefraiche)

Ahead of London’s Risen festival, celebrating the “divine” feminine, we speak to a range of nightlife industry workers to gauge their thoughts on achieving proper progress.

Female DJs must have repetitive strain injury this month.

You know, from replying to all those emails from panicked promoters trying to book them for their International Women’s Day events. And while we’re at it, spare a thought for the wrists of trans and non-binary acts in the run up to Pride. It must be a refreshing change when they’re booked for a night that doesn’t have some variation of girlboss” in the title, or a festival stage that’s not far-flung and draped in rainbows.

But what does the industry look like for non-males on either side of the decks for the other 360-odd days a year?

Last year, The Guardian published an analysis of gender representation in the line-ups of 31 events in the UK. The result was damning: most were still heavily skewed towards men on the programming, with the Isle of Wight Festival ringing in at a stonking 73 per cent male line-up. The imbalance was even more extreme in dance music: Creamfields featured a 91 per cent male line-up in 2021.

We know what you’re thinking. Who actually gives a fuck about Creamfields? Or city centre clubs? Or DJ Mags top 100 DJs, where you’ll find a sea of white men wearing shades and smizing at you (there’s just one non-male act in the top 20 of last year’s list)? But these figures are indicative of a norm that reflects the world beyond the bubble of underground club culture.

In April this year, the inaugural Risen festival will take place in London’s Hackney Wick. In celebration of the divine feminine”, the line-up features entirely women, trans and non-binary talent. Organisers Percolate are working with club nights and collectives like Wxmb2 and Rhythm Sister to realise their vision of a future dance utopia.

Aiming to shine a light on the up-and-coming talent who work so tirelessly across the music industry”, as Percolate’s Kitty Bartlett put it in the festival’s announcement, Risen isn’t only championing women and non-binary talent in the limelight. The festival has also revealed the line-up of artist liaisons, stage managers, engineers and other people on the event team who’d usually work behind-the-scenes.

And if the team behind Risen continue doing what they’re doing on their own terms, then perhaps, over time, the rest of the scene will see the benefits. Inspired by their efforts, we spoke to female and non-binary workers in nightlife to find out how the industry can take meaningful steps towards gender equality.

There’s a wealth of amazingly talented women, non-binary and trans artists in the UK right now. Booking a diverse line-up is really not that hard”

Kitty Bartlett

Maria Grzeszczyk – production and operations manager at Percolate and Risen

You may see loads of opportunities popping up and think: Hey, it’s great they’re offering those jobs to the minorities.’ But the deeper you go into the industry, the less diverse it is. Key players are still middle-aged white men and it’s not easy for qualified women to gain recognition at all.

There’s also this huge stereotype that women can’t do tech. In most cases, they’re not considered for these positions at all. And even if they manage to get further down the recruitment process, their professional skills are heavily questioned and their achievements are diminished.

I’ll never forget when, aged 22, I was working tirelessly on a show’s advanced production for a promoter. I wanted to grow with them and learn more about tech production. I asked my direct manager to teach and guide me. He said straight to my face that he’d rather hire a guy [and] teach him from scratch. He said: It’s a lot of tech stuff and you’re good with emails.’ Brutal.

It was not a one-off either. I’ve met many men in the industry who refused to talk to me because they thought I’m not an equal partner in discussion, even though I was managing the project or running the show.

But I think it’s important to point out that it’s not always the case. Over the years, I’ve met many great men who have been my mentors, teachers and industry mates, and have openly spoken up about the issue. Those kind of people are exactly who we need. Give opportunities to others, recommend them for roles you can’t accept yourself, offer shadowing opportunities when you can. This goes for both men and women. As a man, support your non-male colleagues, talk to them and see what you can do.”

Chloe Bailey – founder of the Breakhouse Café and former general manager at Bloc, The Yard and Mick’s Garage

Really strong independent women taught me everything about the industry. I didn’t even know this industry was out there and I did find it quite hard to break into it. I think [because of] the way I look and speak – I’m quite tall, I’m quite loud, I’m mixed race – a lot of people find me kind of intimidating.

There aren’t many Black people or people from minorities in this scene, especially in the festival industry. I just want people to give me opportunities because of the work that I’ve done. I’d never want to be somewhere because someone said: We need a brown person – get Chloe.’

I used to go out a lot in Brixton for funky house nights and to Brick Lane for minimal tech. At raves back in the day, you’d get a mixture [of people in the crowds] – there’d be Spanish people, posh people, rude boys. Then, I’d never think: Oh, it’s another white male DJ.’ But now, I’d stop and think. If you think more about your booking, you get a better crowd.

When I used to manage clubs, my staff were always lovely – ride or die. But the punters… If I told a guy to do something, he wouldn’t listen. I’ve got the most power in that building, but they’d listen to the guys in high-vis. I’d end up just asking the stewards to tell them what they needed to hear.

The way that places like Berghain do it, where they’re so strict on door policy, have it right. Some people just shouldn’t be allowed out! The businessmen that come on a Friday with their suits on need to stick to certain spots. I wanna be able to go somewhere and know that there won’t be people leering over you or judging you. That’s why a lot of these underground spaces need to exist.”

Yasmine Benafia – freelance artist liaison

I can’t remember the last time I worked with a female promoter on a big event. I’ve watched men in the events industry who’ve publicly waxed lyrical about their support for gender diversity, but then talk down to and go over the heads of women.

All of this needs to change. And slowly it is, especially amongst booking agencies. But it’s incredibly difficult to tackle a general culture of toxic masculinity and the boys’ club mentality when the positions of power are still held mostly by men. So much of this work relies on networking and I think, as an industry, we have a responsibility to not always defer to men when hiring.

Another key thing that needs to change is making sure non-males are kept safe at events. Sexual harassment and assault are still a big problem on either side of the fence, and often it goes under the radar. It’s not currently industry standard and it should be. Initiatives such as Safe Spaces Now, the Good Night Out campaign and Don’t Be a Creep are doing great work in the nighttime industries. Pxssy Palace really set a benchmark for how to create safe and inclusive spaces. Crossbreed are bringing difficult and important conversations about diversity in all forms to the fore.

It would be great to see more typically heteronormative events step up. I’ve noticed that Fabric is booking a much more diverse roster of artists which is always welcome, especially from such an internationally renowned club.”

Sarah McBriar – founder of AVA Festival and UP Productions

Gender diversity has improved a lot over the last 12 years that I’ve worked in the industry. But there’s still a huge amount of work to do to make careers more viable for women, from maternity and child care, to the [safety issues around] travel and the environment of clubs and late night venues.

As a female festival founder, I am acutely aware of the need for diversity on a whole, not just amongst artists, but amongst audiences, staffing, security, production, PR, policing and much more. I think applying a ratio on your artist bookings and staffing is key. Aiming to get as close to 50/​50 as possible is a good place to start. Unfortunately, it’s really difficult to secure female headliners in certain genres. As someone who books, I’m aware of the challenges, but I do think we have a responsibility to push to achieve diversity.”

Kitty Bartlett – senior booker and event manager at Percolate and Risen

During the pandemic, I felt really hopefully that we’d see some positive change when the return to clubbing and festivals finally happened. It’s disappointing to see the number of institutions in the industry, across all genres, not taking this time of reflection to step up and do better. It’s not anywhere near where it needs to be yet.

When we’re programming some of our festivals and working with some of the more male-centric brands, it’s so disappointing when they still just give you a list of cis white guys. It’s just a bit like: Come on, you shouldn’t need me to tell you to do better.’

There’s still a huge disparity between what men and women get paid as performers. This means that less women, non-binary and trans artists are able to take on DJing as a full-time career, as they have to supplement their income elsewhere and have less time to focus their energy into growing as an artist.

Also, male headliners should want to work with promoters to suggest ideas for diverse talent they would like to play alongside them. There’s such a wealth of up-and-coming, amazingly talented women, non-binary and trans artists in the UK right now. Booking a diverse line-up is really not that hard.”

Michelle Manetti – promoter of Fèmmme Fraîche and resident DJ at Adonis

Fèmmme Fraîche is a bi-monthly queer clubnight, which serves as a platform and party focused on FLINTA (female, lesbian, intersex, Non-binary, Trans & Agender) folk.

There’s still issues surrounding harassment in clubs, mainly towards women, which is why it’s particularly important to try and create safer spaces and educate about behaviour. As a queer women, or for trans and non-binary folk, harassment can be even worse or more unwanted. That’s the main reason I decided to start my club night, to create a space for womxn to be in, knowing they’re free from those harassments and microaggressions they might find in other spaces.

I think any male promoters booking womxn for their events need to think a little deeper about how to ensure their comfort and safety; things like making sure they have taxis home, that they’re greeted and taken through the club safely, that there’s no unwanted people (men) behind the decks while they’re playing. These kind of things might not be as important for male DJs.

Marginalised groups will continue to exist and so spaces for those people will always be necessary, for their comfort, safety, for a sense of community, for being able to authentically express themselves without judgement or fear, to be around likeminded people, who understand your vulnerabilities and hold space for you.

I, for one, enjoy being the quirky weirdo, and love being surrounded by other, equally colourful people, so I’m glad and grateful these unadulterated spaces exist.”

Alice Franklin – social strategist at Percolate, creative director & co-creator of Risen

“[At Risen] we’re working hard to hire an all-female, trans and non-binary events crew. There were some areas where we [haven’t been] able to hire an all-female team due to the lack of people trained in certain roles. So we’re offering people who are interested [in these roles] the chance to [shadow] someone on the day and learn first-hand how the job works.

The underground scene always battles diversity and has this as a vital part of their bookings, campaigns and messaging. But we’re in a bit of a bubble. It only takes stepping outside of that and exploring other lineups to realise it’s not as progressive as we thought. It’s a shame to see the big players, even in 2022, announcing lineups that are heavily male-dominated, with only a few women on the lineup, and also heavily white.

When Risen announced on Mixmag and Resident Advisor, it received an incredible amount of negative energy. Hosting a [non-male] lineup isn’t a new concept. What is new is doing this on a large scale and we’ve really felt the impact of this. Any negativity we take with comfort, as it shows us why something like Risen needs to be done: to break outside the bubble of our community and reach new audiences.”

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