The Presidents Club Report Belongs In The History Books, Not Today’s Newspapers

The investigation into 'the most un-PC event of the year' makes for grim reading...

The Presidents Club Report Belongs In The History Books, Not Today's Newspapers

by Vicky Spratt |

An undercover report from Financial Times (FT) journalist Madison Marriage and another reporter has revealed the extent of harassment and degradation suffered by women working at a men-only charity gala hosted by comedian David Walliams at London’s Dorchester Hotel last week. Have you ever wondered what a male-only ‘safe space’ might look like? Read on.

The story is like something from fiction, it’s Bullingdon Club meets The Skulls but, sadly, this is very much the stuff of fact. The event in question was the Presidents Club Charity Dinner. Ostensibly, this is a charity fundraiser which benefits worthwhile causes like the children’s hospital Great Ormond Street.

The undercover reporters at the self-described ‘most un-PC event of the year’ claims that female agency workers were harassed, propositioned and groped by the male attendees, in scenes that wouldn’t be out of place at the fictionalised all-male club attended by Prince Philip and his cronies in Netflix hit series, The Crown.

The Guardian reports that alongside men from various businesses, the event’s guest list included familiar names such as:

Topshop’s millionaire owner, Sir Philip Green

Dragons’ Den’s Peter Jones and Theo Paphitis

Husband of Tess Daly and TV presenter, Vernon Kay

Politicians such as Tory MP and Education Minister Nadhim Zahawi and Labour Party Peer Jonathan Mendelsohn

While it is not known whether these men were in attendance, their inclusion on the guest list gives some idea of the sort of influential figures who were invited to attend.

Prizes for the auction at the event included lunch with the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, afternoon tea with the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney and, perhaps most appallingly, a course of plastic surgery intended to ‘add spice to your wife’. However, it’s worth noting that the Bank of England told the Financial Times they ‘did not approve any prize for auction on the occasion described nor would it have for that organisation under its guidelines for charitable giving’.

Annually, close to 400 bankers, entrepreneurs and celebrities attend the event. According to the Financial Times, 130 women were employed via an agency as hostesses. Some of these women, the undercover journalists allege, were not only groped and harassed but invited by the diners to join them in bedrooms at the hotel. Others allege that some of the men put their hands up their skirts.

The criteria for becoming a hostess at such an event? According to the Financial Times there were three: to be ‘tall, thin and pretty’. What, you might wonder, can someone with these attributes expect to be paid? In total: £150 for the work and £25 for a taxi home. Those lucky enough to be selected were asked to sign a five-page non-disclosure agreement about the event before undertaking their work. Perks, the Financial Times reports, included the fact that ‘unlike most hostessing assignments you could drink on the job’.

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One of the women, who the FT spoke with alleged that an attendee exposed his penis to her. The women chosen for the job were also allegedly told to wear black underwear to match a uniform of short black skirts which they were given for the evening.

Troublingly, the founder of the recruitment agency hiring for the Presidents’ Club, Caroline Dandridge is reported to have said the job was like ‘Marmite’. The Financial Times quotes her as saying ‘some girls love it, and for other girls it’s the worst job of their life and they will never do it again . . . You just have to put up with the annoying men and if you can do that it’s fine’.

Since the report went live, senior politicians have reacted to the allegations of abhorrent sexist harassment. Maria Miller, Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, has said ‘British business need to take a long hard look at itself. How seriously is business taking equality at work if they are still using men only events for entertainment?’. She added ‘perhaps it’s time the government gives the Equality Act some real teeth?’ as opposed to simply ‘paying lip service’ to the issue.

The Debrief wonders what an Equality Act with ‘teeth’ might look like? Could fines be imposed for people found to violate basic things such as an employee’s right not to be harassed?

In Parliament this morning, Anne Milton, the government’s Minister of State for Apprenticeships, Skills and Women responded to a question put to her by Labour MP Jess Philips by saying that this was the first time she had ever heard of the Presidents’ Club. She went on to say that it was ‘extraordinary’ that allegations of ‘inappropriate and lewd behaviour’ at such a prestigious event were ‘still being made in the 21st century’. She went on to add that David Meller who is a co-chair of the Presidents’ Club has now stepped down as a Director at the Department of Education where he was a chair of the Apprenticeships Delivery Board. Responding to another question from Conservative MP Nadine Dorries Milton said, ‘the Commons must send out a message that this is unacceptable’ before going on to confirm that Nadhim Zahawi was attending the event in a ‘private capacity’.

Labour’s Angela Eagle then referenced a report published by the Fawcett Society which found that two thirds of women over 16 have suffered harassment. She noted that the women employed for this event were expected to suffer harassment as part of the job description. She asked Milton whether this will be investigated as it ‘must be against the law’. Milton said she does want to ‘ensure [it] gets looked at but did not respond to calls for Zahawi to resign from his post at her department.

No woman will be shocked to read of a story of sexual harassment involving powerful men behaving atrociously, young women being exploited and a slightly older woman dismissing such a scenario as merely an ‘annoying’ fact of life that we should tolerate as standard. And this, in and of itself, is the problem and the point.

It is, by and large, women who experience sexism and sexual harassment. It is, then, women journalists, reporters and producers who uncover it. It is, then, more often than not, women politicians who ask questions and call for change. For us, sexism is a tax on the unpaid work of being a woman, like the tampon tax, which we are expected to pay in order to pass go before we can get on with our real work.

Time for 'an Equalities Act with teeth' indeed. This story belongs in the history books, not our newspapers.

Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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