Las Vegas Bartender Used to Be a Man’s Job. Not Anymore.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
March 26 2013 7:30 AM

What Happened in Vegas?

Why are Las Vegas bartenders now mostly women?

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But the nightclubs are the focus of the more sexualized environments. These days, college students and recent graduates from all over the U.S. flock to the casino nightclubs to celebrate 21st birthdays or bachelor and bachelorette parties. The girls wear their “slut” dresses. The guys don new shiny shoes. Middle-aged Midwestern salesmen relax in the casinos, trying their hands at blackjack and eventually making their way upstairs to the nightclubs. Wealthy, single thirtysomethings from across the border in California flock to Las Vegas on weekends to party at the nightclubs. And in the background are the women, pouring drinks and chatting with customers waiting in long lines at the bar. One male nightclub bartender told me that customers get less irritated by the wait if they are served by a pretty, friendly female bartender.  

Men who would like to be bartenders complain that the jobs are going to unqualified women. They argue that male bartenders have to work their way up from porter to barback to bartender while women are hired without serving in these positions. Men who are rejected for bartender jobs argue that bartending requires skill. It takes more than large breasts to be a good bartender, they say. But for the most part it’s a lost cause. Over the past decade major casinos have built mega-nightclubs in the casinos and leased their operations to management companies that have total control over the employment policies. Free of union contracts the management companies hire for looks and sex appeal and often exclude men.

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Men could apply for jobs as cocktail servers either on the casino floors or in the nightclubs, but cocktailing, unlike bartending, is traditionally a woman’s job and continues to remain that way. The more expensive the casinos, the better looking the servers. Even in lean economic times, men generally don’t apply for cocktail positions. This is somewhat surprising given that cocktail jobs are well-paid, especially at the high-end casinos. Although the hourly wage is not much to talk about, cocktail servers who work on the casino floor earn generous tips, which means that their annual incomes can exceed $100,000 a year. So why don’t men apply? One female human resources manager of a Nevada casino said that she has a skimpy bikini-like costume for a male applicant just in case a man applies so that she can demonstrate that her casino does not discriminate. The manager suggested that besides shielding the casino from liability for discrimination, the costume serves the purpose of discouraging men from applying for the jobs. And, she reported, men do not apply.

I asked a male bartender at one of the hottest nightclubs about the possibility of male cocktail servers at the nightclubs. “That will never happen,” he said. “I see girls dancing around in their tiny dresses. It would be hilarious to see guys doing that.” Those “tiny dresses” are actually corsets or bustiers—laced-up in the back or the front and barely covering the buttocks with black garter belts, lace stockings, and high heels.

In one way, the shifting gender dynamics help women. Bartenders make less money in tips, but it’s a skilled job, and they get more respect. When you are a cocktail server, “People are grabbing and touching you. It is miserable,” a guy whose girlfriend is a nightclub cocktail server said. But the women keep doing it because you can make $500 a night. When you’re a bartender you have more prestige and you are less exposed. The bar is a physical barrier between you and the customer—no one can surreptitiously grab or touch you.

Not that bartending leaves you free of a certain kind of harassment. People don’t grab as much, but there is real pressure to stay young, beautiful, and thin. When I asked a female bartender about how she likes the job, she said, “There’s a lot of pressure. Everyone is looking at you, and there are so many beautiful women here!” Bartenders in some of the clubs get weighed regularly, and if they gain weight, they can be fired. But heck, it’s Las Vegas. And what happens here, stays here.

Ann McGinley is the William S. Boyd Professor of Law at the University of Nevada Las Vegas Boyd School of Law.