London’s Presidents Club Scandal Proves Sexist Culture Isn’t Going Anywhere Just Yet

The annual fundraising gala, which has now been disbanded, represents the kind of overt misogyny that women experience everywhere.

Credit: Reuters

Credit: Reuters

It’s not entirely news that would shock you out of your boots: a bunch of rich men propositioning and sexually harassing hostesses at an all-male charity event. We’ve seen it in the movies countless times, a hand placed on the knee here and an unsavoury ogle there.

But the recent scandal to have hit the Presidents Club in London is yet another example of women making their voices heard against misogyny post last year’s powerful #MeToo movement.

Members of the Presidents Club, now disbanded, are largely politicians, bankers, philanthropists, tycoons, celebrities and the who’s who of London society. The scandal, which was broken by the Financial Times, has forced the club to shut shop in its 33d year.

A statement said, “The trustees have decided that the Presidents Club will not host any further fundraising events. Remaining funds will be distributed in an efficient manner to children’s charities and it will then be closed.”

“The gathering’s official purpose is to raise money for worthy causes such as Great Ormond Street Hospital, the world-renowned children’s hospital in London’s Bloomsbury district. Auction items included lunch with Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, and afternoon tea with Bank of England governor Mark Carney,” wrote Madison Marriage, who went to the event undercover, for Financial Times.

“But this is a charity fundraiser like no other.”

“It is for men only. A black tie evening, Thursday’s event was attended by 360 figures from British business, politics and finance and the entertainment included 130 specially hired hostesses. All of the women were told to wear skimpy black outfits with matching underwear and high heels. At an after-party many hostesses — some of them students earning extra cash — were groped, sexually harassed and propositioned. The event has been a mainstay of London’s social calendar for 33 years, yet the activities have remained largely unreported — unusual, perhaps, for a fundraiser of its scale.”

In fact, the reporter was also “pawed and subjected to lewd comments”.

The fallout

The fallout, as expected in a world post the Harvey Weinstein episode, has been swift.

The whole scandal quickly reached the top echelons of government, and earned the ire of British Prime Minister Theresa May. She said was “appalled” reading about the event. “I thought that sort of approach to women, that sort of objectification of women was something that we were leaving behind. We’ve made progress but it’s very clear that there is much more for us to do.”

Members of the House of Commons also raised questions about the presence at the dinner of ­Conservative Party lawmaker ­Nadhim Zahawi, the undersecretary of state for children and families. Zahawi claims to have left the event early. Theresa May’s spokesman told the Independant after Zahawi reportedly received a “dressing down” at 10 Downing Street that “my understanding is that Mr Zahawi clearly did attend the event. He has himself said that he felt uncomfortable at it and left at the point at which the hostesses were introduced by the host”.

After it emerged that Labour peer Lord Mendelsohn was also at the event, Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesman said: “What’s been reported about this event is appalling. Women clearly felt threatened there, it was a gross example of sexual harassment.”

Great Ormond Street Hospital, one of the beneficiaries of the event, has given back the money it received from the fundraiser.

The chairman of the club, David Meller, has stepped down from his position in the government as a non-executive member for the department for education. David Walliams – who was the MC the event – has been issuing grovelling apologies, desperate to keep his position in polite society.

The guest list included names like “billionaire Sir Philip Green, the Dragons’ Den entrepreneurs Peter Jones and Theo Paphitis, Tim Steiner, chief executive of the grocery delivery firm Ocado, Formula 1 magnate Bernie Ecclestone”, reports the Guardian.

As the debate has moved to whether the women who signed up as hostesses were also complicit, the Guardian published an editorial.

“Millions have to take short-term, insecure work that leaves them vulnerable to sexual harassment and even abuse. Some men and women go along with behaviour that they know is wrong because they don’t want to risk their job or cause a scene. That has to change; and it is for each of us to decide to change. Until then, there will always be guests for a men-only gala night out,” the editorial reads.

“It is possible to end nights out for slimeballs and stop sexual harassment at work. But it relies on each of us helping to change the culture that lets them happen.”

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