Sexism in the City: The Presidents Club falls on its sword

Without fear or favour, Richard J. Hillgrove VI tips the tables up on world leaders, brands and countries who all often think they can hide behind the smoke and mirrors via their communications professionals. Bang On takes a full throttle, punk approach to dissecting and analysing modern PR and marketing. It's not for the faint hearted....

The Dorchester, the venue for the Presidents Club charity dinner

Time’s up for sexism in the City now that the Presidents Club, that bastion of men-only culture, has fallen on its sword following allegations from this year’s big black-tie charity dinner.

The ensuing self-flagellation has been agonising to watch. Did no-one spot the red flag waving from the men only, no wives or girlfriends allowed, rule? Really?

Someone somewhere must have wondered whether there would be more on offer than food, drink and a chance to flash the cash.

Of course they did. They just didn’t expect to be caught out in a newspaper sting in our new era of #MeToo and #TimesUp.

WPP suddenly found itself compromised after sponsoring a table at the Dorchester Hotel event where an undercover Financial Times reporter found hostesses were sexually harassed.

WPP’s chief operating officer for Europe, Andrew Scott, was one of 360 rich men who attended and the agency was quick to join the chorus calling out the Presidents Club for being party to bad behaviour.

After all, it doesn’t sit well with the campaign WPP launched in March last with partners Theirworld, to “expose the hidden values and behavioural codes of gender inequality”.

The blurb on WPP’s website says: “#RewritingTheCode aims to raise awareness of the obvious – and less obvious – attitudes that prevent girls and women around the world from achieving their full potential.

“The Campaign is launched on International Women’s Day…”

Theirworld founder and president Sarah Brown is quoted as saying: “We want a future where no girl is left out of … the boardroom or the conversation”.

The Presidents Club, although it has raised a lot of money for charity, has hardly been a role model there.

With WPP withdrawing its support, the dominos duly fell. But rather than offer up a full mea culpa, WPP adopted the same PR approach to many of the other high-profile men at the dinner: Disgust clouded by a convenient attack of amnesia.

Quizzed on Radio 4’s Today programme, Sir Martin Sorrell admitted he had attended the event “many years ago” but that “our people who were there at our table .. said they saw nothing….”

The host for the evening, David Walliams, was also quick to join the disgust and denial brigade. He texted: “I did not witness any of the kind of behaviour that allegedly occurred and am absolutely appalled by the reports.”

Sir Martin added that allegations of groping and harassment were “highly regrettable” “if true” but that representatives of the company who attended the dinner said they “saw nothing of the kind”.

Children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi has been hauled over the coals for being there, although education minister Anne Milton jumped to his defence with the same PR approach.

She said: “He didn't stay at the event long and I know that he found the event extremely uncomfortable. He left and he was truly shocked by the reports that have emerged.”

But in all honesty, what else did anyone expect? It’s that 'what happens on tour, stays on tour mentality.'

Casualties from the most politically incorrect event in town don’t end there. Businessman David Meller has stepped down from his non-executive role on the Board of Education after it emerged he was involved with the Presidents Club.

His work sponsoring academies and schools bagged him a CBE in this year's New Year's Honours list for 'services to education'.

And over at the Bank of England, which allegedly provided an auction prize, the Governor Mark Carney is “deeply dismayed that such an event could take place”.

But just such an event has been taking place for 33 years with no-one turning a hair and everyone turning a blind eye. The City of London is no stranger to lap dancing and hostess club culture. Doing the business is an integral part of doing business in some quarters.

The problem here is not that sexually orientated entertainment was on offer. Places like Soho’s Windmill Club, which donated an auction prize, and Spearmint Rhino offer that every day and you don’t hear too many people complaining.

The issue is hypocrisy. The difference is that these adult clubs don’t bar wives and girlfriends. They have many happy women customers, and it’s fair to say the women who work in these establishments know the score, understand what they’re getting into. They do so eyes wide open.

It’s also an issue of entitlement, a sense of women being herded like cattle into a bullring where only the men call the shots.

The 130 “tall, leggy and pretty” female hostesses were also expected to leave their other halves at home, just like the men. They were paid around £170 for a ten-hour shift, given money for a taxi home and made to sign a non-disclosure form.

During the recruitment process, they were warned the men might be “annoying” or try to get the hostesses “pissed”, according to the FT. They were even told by event agency Arista to wear matching black underwear and 'sexy shoes'.

Did the women hired for the evening know what they were letting themselves in for? Some might have done, some might have been seduced by the notion of meeting a rich sugar-daddy, others might have thought it a fun way to earn some extra cash.

There might even have been some girls who believed that a group of grown men in the public eye might behave with a modicum of respect in public.

Certainly, women are coming forward to describe how the evening didn’t go as they’d expected and the antics they witnessed left them uncomfortable.

On the night it was sex all the way with a troupe of burlesque dancers dressed like furry-hatted Coldstream Guards, but with star-shaped stickers hiding their nipples, and a glossy auction catalogue peppered with images of Marilyn Monroe in tight, revealing dresses.

All very well if the audience is inclusive, if there’s no coercion or seedy behind-the-bike-sheds-style and unwelcome groping.

The ripples have even affected those organisations the Presidents Club aimed to help. Sexism and sexual harassment are so toxic that the merest whiff of association is now a no-no and charities like Great Ormond Street Hospital are pledging to return any money they received from the disgraced fundraiser – that was £280,000 in 2016.

Over the years, the Presidents Cub has raised £20m for children’s charities. But is it right for them to suffer now as a result of the behaviour of a bunch of rich men on a lads’ night out?

The days of the old-school Mayfair men’s club may be over, but reaction to the Presidents Club debacle shows we still have a lot to learn if we’re to navigate the #metoo landscape ethically and safely.

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