Men in tailored suits bidding for plastic surgery that promises to “add spice to your wife”. Ignoring the event brochure’s full-page warning against sexual harassment, these same men grope, pinch and fondle young women’s bodies. A businessman complains a woman isn’t drunk enough, pushes alcohol on her, and demands she remove her knickers and dance on a table.
You’d be forgiven for thinking these were scenes from Margaret Atwood’s Jezebel club depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale. Not so — instead these are experiences women shared with the Financial Times for the paper’s expose of “the most un-PC event of the year”: the Presidents Club Charity Dinner at the Dorchester Hotel.
The revelations of how powerful men behave at this dinner are important for two reasons.
First, they expose the normalisation of sexual harassment and objectification of women at a time when — after MeToo — politics, business and the charity sector need to prove they are taking such things seriously.
And secondly, they reveal how power and influence is still set up to exclude women.
Much of the media focus on MeToo was on politics and culture. What was discussed far less was how sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour exists across a whole range of other industries, including finance and hospitality. This is in spite of the fact that report after report about sexism in The City have been published in recent years.
Events like this perhaps help explain why. Despite post-MeToo promises of change, the men attending the Dinner seem to have little motivation to tackle a culture of inequality and normalised harassment. It’s that very culture which gifts them networking opportunities and the chance to bid for lunch with Boris Johnson, all while sticking their hand up a young woman’s skirt.
Meanwhile, the bosses of hospitality agencies are hardly incentivised to take steps to tackle sexual harassment either. They know they can make a profit from hiring pretty young women to serve drinks at male-only events. The FT reports that the hostesses’ supervisor told the women they “just have to put up with annoying men”. Women working as hostesses are often on low pay, often zero hour contracts. The risk for them complaining about a culture of harassment and intimidation is high — speak out and they may no longer find themselves with a job.
It’s this vulnerability that allows harassment to flourish in low-paid, precarious jobs while women feel pressured to keep quiet in order to remain in employment.
The end result is men benefiting from a culture of sexual inequality and harassment — while poorer, younger women pay the price.
The behaviour at the Presidents Club Charity Dinner can also be seen in the context of a wider backlash against MeToo.
After all, across the public sphere, we’ve seen powerful institutions promise that they will instigate change and start tackling a culture of endemic sexual harassment. Yet behind the closed doors of The Dorchester, men are invited to indulge in a pre-feminist fantasy of domination and power, where they have a place at the table and women’s only role is to serve them.
The uneven balance of power between the men paying for a table at this exclusive event and the women whose hands they demand to hold is telling. The FT reports that for some of the women working for £15 per hour, a motivation for accepting the contract was to try and make contacts and get a job. Indeed, this was one of the reasons some hostesses take part in the event year after year.
What does this tell us about women’s status in these male-dominated spheres? There’s something incredibly uncomfortable in the idea that young women are asked to perform as sex objects, put up with groping, harassment and indecent exposure, all in the hope of leaving with a business card that might prove useful down the line — as well as some ready cash to pay their rent.
Not least because in a situation where men are there to dominate and women exist as objects, the chance of a future respectful working relationship seem slim. And what about the women who are excluded from the event in the first place?
Sadly, the Presidents Club Charity Dinner is hardly the only example of male-only networking that excludes women from the seat of power and influence. It remains the case that strip clubs offer business entertaining packages, and the cliche about deals being made on the golf course still hasn’t been confined to the past. Male-only clubs remain places where powerful men can come together — all the while escaping from the irritating existence of women. Yet when women attempt to set up our own single sex spaces, we’re accused of sexism.
The FT’s expose has been a grim reminder of how women are all too often treated by powerful men in society. But it’s also been a reminder of what it is that women want from society. We want the same opportunities and the same choices as our male counterparts. We don’t want the door shut in our faces because we’re women, or opened a crack — but only if we’re willing to put up and shut up about harassment.
We don’t want men to retreat to a misogynistic bubble where they have a seat at the table and women are placed on the menu. We want to be treated with respect — to be able to do our jobs without fear, without intimidation, and without being excluded.
It shouldn’t be too much to ask. After MeToo, it’s what we were told to expect from now on.
Instead, the Presidents Club Charity Dinner shows how politics and business are offering promises to women with one hand, while groping our bottoms with the other.