Student Contribution: 'An ethnographic study of gender influences on social behaviour of
members at a private golf club'
Peter A. Shotton, Dr. Kathleen M. Armour & Paul Potrac
Brunel University, England
Summary of Review of Literature
The objective of this study was to utilise ethnographic research techniques to gain an understanding of
the ways in which gender issues are in evidence in the day-to-day activities of a private golf club . In
particular, this study aimed to investigate whether and how gender issues were a part of the
experience of being a member at the golf club. In this context, Hargreaves (1994) found that:
Most golf clubs were private clubs where women were denied full
membership, had no voting power, had limited access to club
facilities, had much less playing time than men and were usually
barred from weekend play and local tournaments (p.126).
However, studies of gender influences on social behaviour in golf, and particularly in golf clubs, are
scarce. Hargreaves (1994), believes that there is a definite need for extensive, ethnographic research
that investigates, in detail, 'how gender relations cohere with the other features of the broader social
context' (p.11). An ethnographic approach was chosen for this study because it has the potential to
provide a descriptive, interpretive, evaluative and potentially authentic vision of society (Hammersley
& Atkinson, 1995). Golf clubs can be viewed as particularly interesting social research settings,
given their history of institutionalised discrimination against women, and the tendency towards male
glorification (Wilkins, 1997).
Brief methodological comments
'Gender' draws attention to, 'the nature of the social relationship between men and women and implies
that status and social position are culturally constructed' (Parratt, 1994, p.10). Kidd (1987) argues
that males currently have access to more than twice the opportunities and public resources available
for sport and, more significantly, the males that control sport demonstrate little intention to redress
this imbalance. Thus, sport is predominantly a male-orientated world because (a) most sports were
invented by men for men (Boutilier & SanGiovanni, 1983); (b) Professional team sports, which
tend to serve as the model for youth and school sport, consist primarily of men (Coakley, 1990); (c)
only one third of the athletes at the high school and college levels are female (Birrell, 1987); and (d)
men hold most leadership and coaching positions (Acosta & Carpenter, 1988). It would appear,
therefore, that the socially constructed barriers that inhibit female participation form the basis of
oppressive gender relations in sport. In the context of golf clubs, Kennedy (1997) claims, 'Since 1979
there has been a fifty percent increase in the number of female golfers affiliated to clubs in the UK, to
approximately 220,000' (p.35). This increase has prompted a more in-depth investigation of women's
golf in local clubs and at professional level.
European golfer Seve Ballesteros (1980) is one of many who openly dismiss the women's game. In
uncompromising form, he declared,
- You women want equality, but you'll never get it because women are inferior to men in all sorts of
ways - physically, intellectually and morally. There are exceptions, but on the whole women are
inferior to men (cited in Mott, 1996)
Mott (1996) claimed that golf clubs were the last bastions of retreating chauvinism, suggesting that
golfing women are treated as a sub-species and that reference to them as 'ladies' is patronising.
Hopkins (1997) argues that women have suffered in golf because they have been forced to play with
inappropriate equipment for their build, strength, level and swing speed. Despite these restrictions,
Kennedy (1997) reveals that the recent surge in female participation in golf is due to an increased
awareness of golf club managers of career women with a disposable income who are happy to pay the same
subscriptions as the men and expect equal rights both out on the course and in
the clubhouse (p.72).
At the professional level, the Women's European Professional Tour has been the source of critical
scrutiny over the last decade. Henderson (1997) charts the relative failure of the Women Professional
Golfer's European Tour (WPGET), noting, for example, that sponsors such as American Express have
withdrawn their capital because the women's tour is less successful and attractive than the men's tour.
Suggested reasons for this include a lack of female professionals, limited tournaments, too few
sponsors and inadequate prize funds (Henderson, 1997). Terry Coates, chief executive of the
WPGET (1997), admits that the perception of women as an inferior body of golfers is 'a cultural
barrier that has to be climbed' (p.26). Pitt (1997), argues that professional women's golf in Europe
should be prosperous due to success in the 1992 Solheim cup and the 'breakthrough of many players
into world class' (p.14) but the gradual collapse of the women's tour is a sad reflection of the influence
of gender differences in sport today (Pitt, 1997, p.14).
Research which focuses specifically upon gender relations in golf clubs points to some contradictions.
A survey carried out by Fore! magazine (Aug. 1997), questioned 1,000 men aged 25 to 45 regarding
women's golf, and results show that only 9 percent of respondents thought that women and golf were
incompatible. Hamblin (editor for the magazine) commented that,
Golf has this reputation for being totally stupid and boring, where women aren't
even allowed to walk in front of the clubhouse windows. This survey shows that
male golfers believe golf is a social thing for both sexes. (p.34)
On the other hand, many golf clubs uphold historical restrictions regarding women golfers, despite
this indication of the changing attitude of men. For example, Gill, (1994) found that there are many
existing golf clubs that forbid female entrants, and that have committees with the precise purpose of
restricting female participation. In an interesting parallel, a study of Wirral Ladies' Golf Club, near
Birkenhead, by Jenkins (1997) revealed that, until recently, the men at the club, totaling around 190,
have been denied a say in the club's affairs, despite paying equal fees. Furthermore, the women are in
favour of a gender division which upholds the specific gender traditions of the club.
Changes in the law aimed at giving women the same rights as men in private golf clubs, are being
planned by the Government (Syal & Welsh, 1997). Current laws on equality and sex
discrimination do not include privately run establishments such as golf clubs and the Equal
Opportunities Commission, responsible for the radical changes, will attempt to outlaw discriminatory
practices. Syal and Welsh (1997) state 'It may help to wake up some of the men to the fact that we
can play golf as well and have the right to have a say in our own clubs' (p.16).
The research setting: Club profile.
Sparkes (1992) argues that
The interpretative paradigm seeks explanation within the realm of individual consciousness and
subjectivity, within the frame of reference of the participant as opposed to the observer of action'
Using an ethnographic research technique, within an interpretive framework, this study sought to
understand gender relations in a private golf club from the perspective of the members themselves.
Using interviews and observation, the research was carried out continuously over a period of five full
days at a private golf club. The structure of each day was determined by the schedule of the club.
During general observations in the club, any actions, behaviours or incidents that were deemed to be
linked to gender were noted. Wherever possible, the researcher's interpretation of the issue was
discussed with the respondents at the time or soon after the observation. At the end of each day, the
field notes were completed, and the interview tapes categorised. The data, in the form of fieldnotes
and interview transcripts, were analysed in several methodical stages as suggested by Marshall and
Rossman (1989). Having developed categories and established themes, the data were interpreted using
the analytic narrative (Thomas & Nelson, 1996).
Summary of findings
The case-study golf club opened in 1935 and is situated in England. It has approximately 550 full,
golf playing members and around 30 social members. Of the 550 full members, 400 are male and 150
are female. Apart from the senior section, there are also veteran and junior divisions for the men. The
women have a separate section. The club is a proprietor's establishment, which means that it is owned
by a private company. The structure comprises a management team, which administers the club's
business duties, and a separate, voluntary committee that controls the provision of golf for the
members of the club.
Attitudes Towards Participation
Five themes were identified from the mass of raw data:
(a) attitudes towards participation,
(b) social interaction and communication,
(c) organisation and compliance with rules and regulations,
(d) age, and
These themes are discussed in turn and supported using extracts from field notes and comments made
during the interviews.
Social Interaction and Communication
Members gave a multitude of reasons for playing golf and this was reflected in their behaviour within
the clubhouse. A group of four men was observed standing against the bar, discussing the round of
golf they had just completed, over several pints of ale. Their detailed discussion made it clear that they
desperately wanted to win the club monthly medal, and were determined to explain why they had not.
During an interview on another occasion, a female player commented that, 'men are far more
competitive than women on the course. That is a fact'. Many more female players reiterated this view
during the study, suggesting that men place greater emphasis on improving their personal skill level
and achieving success. One female player commented, 'The atmosphere during women's competitions
is very light-hearted because all the women want is to have fun and enjoy each other's company'. This
player closely echoes the view expressed in Hargreaves (1994) study which found that 'whereas men
tend to take sports seriously, women are able to laugh at themselves and enjoy the experience'
Organisation and Compliance with Rules and Regulations.
According to the club secretary, the club prevents or overcomes any instances of racial, sexual or age
discrimination by creating an atmosphere that is both friendly and relaxed. During an interview with
the men's secretary, the following response was given:
Interviewer: What kind of atmosphere is this club trying to create?
Secretary: We pride ourselves on being a friendly club with very
little animosity. If everyone is catered for, and the
member's interests are at the top of the list, then
everyone is happy. And that spreads warmth throughout
There were many examples of, what certainly appeared to be, friendly banter between the sexes,
around gender-based issues. According to one male player, the women are respected for their status as
club members and the social interaction between sexes has created a good rapport. Previous research
has noted that many clubs establish separate sections and facilities for men and women to prevent
social integration (Vertinsky, 1994; Jenkins, 1997). However, there was no evidence of that at this
Some of the men demonstrated a reluctance to observe club rules and regulations. On several
occasions, male members had to be reminded by members of staff that (a) hats are not to be worn
inside the clubhouse, and (b) spiked golf shoes are not to be worn in the lounge area. The women,
however, were always seen to abide by the rules and were dressed appropriately without exception.
This was also reflected in two committee meetings observed. The women's meeting was highly
structured, methodical, formal and extensive, whereas the men's meeting was very informal, loosely
structured and short. A male committee member commented that official meetings tend to create or
magnify problems that are insignificant, so an informal style is adopted to prevent any such
complications from arising. A female member on the other hand, believed that in order for the
women's section to run efficiently, regular meetings that addressed both successes and difficulties
were imperative. The difference between the way the two groups worked could not have been more
marked. It also raises an interesting paradox - despite being in the minority, being 'less competitive'
and confessing to being largely social golfers, the women were clearly more organised, precise,
disciplined and diligent than the men.
During an interview with the club manageress, it was discovered that the youngest female member in
the club is thirty-eight years old. It was also confirmed that there is no female junior section at the
club. A large percentage of the women's section are married and between the ages of 45 and 55 years.
The men's section however, consists of three divisions: junior, senior and veteran and male members
range from school boys to professionals and retired pensioners. According to several players, many
women at the club were introduced to golf by their partners or husbands and so took up the sport at a
later stage in life when family commitments were reduced. When questioned about the lack of young
women golfers at the club, one female member replied that,
Hopkins (1997), blames poor marketing and advertising of the women's game for the failure of the
Women's Professional Tour and consequently low female participation in clubs. Consequently,
Johnson (1997), states that in order for women's golf to grow the product itself has to be marketed and
sold better; not enough is being done to promote the game for women. There was certainly little
evidence of the club going out of its way to attract more female players.
Girls are only introduced to team sports when they are school.
Golf has not been a young girl's sport in the past. Boys on the
other hand are introduced to far more sports at a young age and
are taught by their fathers to play golf. Therefore, many women
only begin to play golf after they have matured and usually when
their husbands or boyfriends play.
Some of the members suggested that, at times, female players exhibit signs of nervous tension on the
course, especially when playing in mixed events with the men. According to one male player, women
often feel inferior when playing with men because of their lack of power and length off the tee. The
following extract from field notes illustrates the issue:
The club professional also noted that some women get tense during mixed events, and he felt that it
was because they feel inferior to most male players. He explained that there is a stigma attached to
women's golf that defines it as, 'Slow, Short and Shabby', and that the women are fully conscious of
this stigma. Willis (1982), explains that women feel inferior to men irrespective of circumstances
Once again members are gathered in the bar having played in a mixed
competition (teams consisted of two men and two women). The atmosphere is
jovial and most of the members seem relaxed and contented, irrespective of how
they had performed on the course. However, two women seem less than
cheerful and their solemn behaviour merits further examination. One of the
women proceeds to apologise to her respective male partner for her poor
performance and dismal score. He laughs and dismisses her apologies,
remarking that everyone has bad games and she need not worry. The women
agreed to be interviewed and the following exchange took place;
Interviewer: What are you feeling at the moment?
Respondent :I feel a bit disappointed because of the way I played
and I feel a bit embarrassed. Both men in our team scored well
and hit the ball well. I couldn't compete with them and at
times I felt silly. At several holes, I picked my ball up because I
was so far behind and had no chance of making a score.
The fact that no one can deny female differences becomes the fact
of female sports inferiority, becomes the fact that females are
innately different from men, becomes the fact that women who
stray across the defining boundary are in a parlous state. An
ideological view comes to be deposited in our culture as a common
sense assumption - of course women are different and inferior (p.130).
It would appear that many club members recognised differences between the ways in which male and
female members approached both the playing of golf, and the social side of the club. The women
showed greater respect for rules and regulations, paid greater attention to etiquette, were distinctly
more organised during committee meetings and formal events than the men, and appeared to value
the social benefits of golf more than skill acquisition or victory. The men, according to many of the
club members, were more overtly competitive and placed greater value on winning and improving
skill level than the women. Within the clubhouse, there was evidence of friendly and relaxed social
interaction and communication between genders. However, there were very few female members
compared to male members, and more of the female players were older - the club didn't even have a
junior section for girls. So, although few members identified gender-based issues as problematic, and
the club secretary felt that his strategies would ensure that 'everyone is happy', it is clear that the
weight of discrimination against women in sport, and in golf in particular, was an ever-present -
albeit not overt - feature of life at the club.
Acosta, V. & Carpenter, L. (1985). Status of women in athletics: changes and causes.
Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 56(6), 30-37.
Ballesteros, S. (1980). Quoted in Mott, S. (1996, October 21). To the revolution. The Daily
Boutilier, M. & SanGiovanni, L. (1983). The sporting woman. Champaign, IL:
Coakley, J. (1986). Sport in society: issues and controversies. St. Louis: Times/ Mirror
Coates, T. (1997). Quoted in Henderson, J. (1997, November 2). Women's tour tensions after a bear-
pit year. The Observer (p.33).
Gill, D. L. (1994) Psychological perspectives on women in sport and exercise. In Costa, D. M. &
Guthrie, S. R. Women in sport: interdisciplinary perspectives. (pp. 253-284). Champaign,
IL: Human Kinetics.
Hamblin, P. (1997). Quoted in Wilkins, E. (1997, August 6). Men put women golfers to fore.
The Times Newspaper Ltd. (p.31).
Hammersley, M. & Atkinson, P. (1995). Ethnography: principles in practice. 2nd Ed.
Hargreaves, J. (1994). Sporting females: critical issues in the history and sociology of women's
sports. London & New York: Routledge.
Henderson, J. (1997, November 2). Women's tour tensions after a bear- pit year. The
Hopkins, J. (1997, November 15). Battle of sexes engenders close rivalry. The Times Newspaper
Jenkins, R. (1997, July 12) Golf club women keep men off par. The Times.(p.29)
Johnson, T. (1997). Quoted in Elliot, B. (1997, August 17). Long drive from Tour's bitter cocktail
circuit. The Observer. (p.25).
Kennedy, P. (1997, July 13). How women golfers reduced their handicap. 'You'
Magazine: Mail on Sunday. (p.38).
Kidd, B. (1987). Sports and masculinity. In Kaufman, M. (Ed.). Beyond patriarchy: essays by
men on pleasure, power and change. (pp. 250-265). Torronto: Oxford University
Marshall, C. & Rossman, G. B. (1989). Designing qualitative
research. London: SAGE Publications.
Mott, S. (1996, October 21). To the revolution. The Daily Telegraph. (p.S7).
Parratt, C. M. (1994). From the history of women in sport to women's sport history: a research
agenda. In Costa, D. M. & Guthrie, S. R. Women in sport: interdisciplinary
perspectives. (p. 1-12). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Pitt, N. (1997, October, 26). Tour bunkered by Amex pull-out. The Sunday Times Newspaper
Sparkes, A. (1992). Research in physical education and sport; exploring alternative visions.
London: Falmer Press.
Syal, R. & Welsh, E. (1997, July 20). Women golfers on course for club equality. The
Times Newspaper Ltd. (p.35).
Thomas, J. R. & Nelson, J. K. (1996) Research methods in physical activity.
Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Vertinsky, P. (1994). Women, sport and exercise in the 19th century. In Costa, D. M. &
Guthrie, S. R. Women in sport: interdisciplinary perspectives. (pp. 63-82). Champaign,
IL: Human Kinetics.
Willis, P. (1982). Women in sport and ideology. In Hargreaves, J. A. (Ed.). Sport, culture and
ideology. (pp. 117-135). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
| issue 2 | overview |