From the Presidents Club to Weinstein, it seems change only happens once bad behaviour becomes a scandal. How about next time we don’t wait?by Louise Ridley / January 25, 2018 / Leave a comment
You couldn’t make it up. If there was any doubt that sexism and sexual harassment are ingrained in the upper echelons of the country, look no further than the Presidents Club, a secretive group of “esteemed members of the investment, real estate, sports, entertainment, motor industry and fashion world” who gathered at what appeared to be a sexual harassment bonanza that the Financial Times revealed this week.
If Harvey Weinstein was a monster, the investigation into the Presidents Club gala revealed a monstrous party, a “men only” event for leaders apparently representing most of British business (so few women are CEOs that who cares about excluding them, right?)
Men only, that is, obviously except for the female staff who were groped, sexually harassed and propositioned, according to the Financial Times. Pieces of meat allowed, business women forbidden.
Of course, the reaction has been shock. Some men who attended are busy stating that they left early (though the FT story suggests the alleged behavior started, erm, before the canapes were served). Great Ormond Street Hospital, one of the charities the event fundraised for, has said it didn’t know what happened at the event or that it would be receiving money from it. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson did not know he was included in an auction as a prize. David Walliams, the event host, is appalled.
I’m not implying that they did know what was going on—but maybe they should have done. In a post-Weinstein climate, it isn’t just shameful to attend an event that quite obviously oozes with sexism, it’s stupid too.
These Presidents Club events have run for 33 years, attended by hundreds of men. The group has given some £20 million to charity and the dinner is one of the UK’s biggest fundraising events of the year, according to Walliams, and guests and partners would have had a long relationship with it.
At least some of the UK’s most powerful people will have witnessed, and allegedly perpetrated, sexual harassment. It’s pretty galling that a newspaper had to send in undercover women to expose this, while hundreds of the most powerful people in the country were in the room.
Rightly, many companies associated with The Presidents Club are showing their disapproval with action. Charities are handing back the donations and said they won’t accept future ones. WPP, one of the world’s most powerful advertising conglomerates, said it will no longer sponsor a table at the gala before the organisation subsequently shut down.
But the club has a list as long as your arm of charities that have benefitted from it over many years, including a girl’s school and a Jewish cultural centre. While returning the money from 2018’s event is a meaningful gesture, it’s a bit like cutting off an arm you didn’t realise had got gangrene. We need to wake up to the problem before it gets this bad, or more specifically, before women get grabbed.
If Great Ormond Street—which thanked The Presidents Club for its donations in its 2105/16 annual impact report—wasn’t aware that a major fundraising event from a significant donor was potentially facilitating harassment, hopefully it will be among many charities now carefully considering who they accept money from, and how it’s raised.
Now that most of us seem to agree that sexual harassment isn’t okay, or at least that we don’t want to be linked with it, we can do more than expressing shock and taking action after revelations break.
As with Weinstein, who was king of Hollywood until he was fired after the New York Times piece, we are always on the back foot cutting ties and money from people and groups who are shamed. And with Weinstein at least, lots of people have admitted they knew more than was first apparent about what was going on.
We should be acting preemptively, not waiting for the papers to tell us what’s rotten in society.
Every business deal, every dinner, every meeting, every hospitality booth, every AGM, literally every day in the office is a chance to ask “wait, is that sexist?” If that sounds patronising, it’s a reflection of the dire state of things.
It’s not easy to speak up when no-one else is, the last few months have taught us that. But small actions like men refusing to speak on all-male panels, backing up women in workplaces, encouraging women to speak in meetings, supporting mothers just back from maternity leave, and asking female colleagues if they feel they get paid fairly, can help redress the balance.
This isn’t the first time there have been allegations about The Presidents Club events—some were reported previously in the Independent—it’s just the first time anyone has felt forced to distance themselves from it. Heaven forbid that as well as noticing it, we could even try to stop it from happening in the first place.