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by Mandy Rhodes
28 January 2018
If you think reports from the Presidents Club dinner are normal then you are blind to what's happening in the world

If you think reports from the Presidents Club dinner are normal then you are blind to what's happening in the world

Amazingly, the people who appear most shocked by the allegations of what went on at the all-male Presidents Club dinner are the men that attended and who, apparently, all headed off home early with a ‘nothing to see here, chum’.

I’m not buying it. If you go to a men-only event of that ilk, then you’re already promoting sexism. If you see nothing wrong in a procession of uniformly tall, thin and pretty waitresses being plied with free alcohol and all wearing tiny black skirts, matching knickers and belts like corsets, then you have a warped sense of employment practices. And if you think it is normal for a grown man to grab at the anatomy of a female stranger who just happens to be serving his starter, then you are truly blind to what has been going on in the world.

This is 2018 not 1818. Yet despite the furore of the last year, when the #metoo movement painfully exposed the scale of sexual harassment, when women truly believed that by sharing the horrors that pervade their everyday lives, that a watershed moment had been reached, a newspaper exposé has just proved them wrong.

Money, power, massive egos and a ‘big swinging dick’ machismo combusted last week at an all-male charity dinner, translating into a grotesque throwback that was redolent of behaviours most of us had assumed had gone forever.

Which does, depressingly, beg the question of what it takes to see actual cultural change?

Last week’s revelations in the Financial Times about the debauchery at the Presidents Club dinner at the Dorchester Hotel would suggest that the shock and fallout from the Weinstein allegations has had its limitations as far as the establishment is concerned.

And while the curtain has been lifted, giving us a behind-the-scenes exposé of a grotesque pantomime of power and privilege, it has also thrown into sharp relief why gender inequality endures.

Captains of industry, business chiefs, serving politicians, government ministers and leaders of education, who all during the day no doubt rabidly espouse the ethics of equality, are at night endorsing what can only be described as a rape culture.

When men at the top think women are there for the taking, how can we ever progress towards anything resembling parity?

It is inexplicable to me why, given the current climate, this dinner ever took place, but it takes an astonishing lack of self-awareness, never mind an ignorance of a shift of social mores, for the men who were there to then profess not to know what was going on around them.

Maybe it is just the arrogance of power that blinds, but the men-only invitation was surely clue enough that this might not be a wise event to attend. The brochure was littered with reminders about behaviour and an adherence to a “gentleman’s code” – whatever that might mean.

The raffle included a night at a Soho strip club and a course of plastic surgery, which invited bidders to “add spice to your wife” and a compere opened the evening with the promise of it being “the most un-PC event of the year”.

And it’s in the excruciating detail about the 133 hostesses – that’s almost one girl to every two males – having to sign five-page non-disclosure agreements, having their mobile phones confiscated, being monitored for how long they spent in the loo or being chivvied along to “look after” their tables, that it becomes glaringly obvious that they were there to serve – and not just the dinner.

But then what is truly godawful is that so many people, including London’s mayor, and the Prime Minister, who is yet again found to be “appalled”, are talking as if what happened at the dinner is some sort of aberration, a shocking one-off, an awful but isolated example of rich, ego-charged, powerful money-men behaving badly towards poorly-paid women who are as much for the taking as the smoked salmon and keta caviar.

The Presidents Dinner is a well-established fixture in the City. It’s been going for over 30 years. If you’re a man and you’re rich, famous or powerful, then you already knew it was there. For the rest of us, it is something of a revelation.

But in all its awfulness, is it a watershed? The banking crisis, the expenses scandal, Weinstein, #metoo, Carillion’s collapse, the Presidents Club dinner, they all serve to remind us that shockwaves wash over and don’t precipitate meaningful change.

Sure, one way to regard the fallout is to focus on the positives: the speed of condemnation, the political outrage, the dismissals, the questioning over what happens in the name of charity and the immediate closure of an organisation that had surely had its day.

But the closure of the Presidents Club isn’t the sole solution. It’s the objectification of women that should be relegated to the past and when serving politicians, men of influence, and those that help frame the policy agenda for change, pretend that the problem doesn’t lie with them – because they saw nothing wrong – then there remains a lingering doubt that what they say in public is not what they say or do behind closed doors.

The painful outpouring of last year was meant to be a watershed, but in some quarters, including, sadly, among some women, there is a backlash. There are accusations of censorious authoritarianism – that it is political correctness gone mad –  that there’s a witch-hunt to prevent ‘boys being boys’, but after last week’s exposé, I have two words – ‘grow’, ‘up’.

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