Dearbhail McDonald: Top businessmen groping hostesses proves we’re long way from equality
‘A Company of Men’ is an episode in ‘The Crown’, Netflix’s excellent series on Britain’s royal family.
The episode depicts a young Prince Philip, banished on a grand tour to Britain’s colonial outposts, in which the prince’s all-male entourage engage in grotesque behaviour, “banging the natives” to their hearts’ content, amongst other things.
The real kick in the stomach comes when the escapades are read out to the members of the men-only Thursday Club back in Soho. The room erupts with cheers when the colonial dispatches are read out, the men lasciviously groping the female waitresses to hammer home their approval.
That was the scene that sprang immediately to mind late on Tuesday night when I read the sickening ‘Financial Times’ exposé of this year’s men-only ‘President’s Club’ charity fundraiser at the upmarket Dorchester Hotel in London.
Netflix drew opprobrium in some quarters for stretching its viewers’ credulity by depicting Prince Philip’s men – and the esteemed Thursday Club of which he was a member – as little more than privileged, sexist pigs.
Yet life, it seems, really does imitate art after all.
The ‘FT’ exposé involved groundbreaking work by one of its female journalists, Madison Marriage, who infiltrated the dinner after applying for a hostess job alongside another woman who worked with her.
The MC began the evening by welcoming the elite gathering of men “to the most un-PC event of the year”, before descending into scenes of degradation and debauchery at the expense of the 130 hostesses hired to serve their needs.
This esteemed Company of Men included prominent businessmen, politicians, bankers, property tycoons, lawyers, financiers and CEOs: think the Thursday Club on steroids.
One hostess recounted to the ‘Financial Times’ a scene of “braying men” fondling her bottom, stomach and legs. Another guest “lunged at her to kiss her”. According to the accounts of multiple women, groping and similar abuse was seen across many of the tables in the room.
Hostesses said men “repeatedly” put their hands up their skirts, with one exposing himself, whilst reluctant hostesses – between the ages of 19 and 23 and many of them students – were prodded by “an enforcement team” to interact with the guests. The women were paid £150 (€170) for a six-hour shift, plus £25 for a taxi home, not including any time they spent at an after-party at which one woman was told to “down that glass, rip off your knickers and dance on that table”. To add insult to injury, lots at the charity auction included a night at Soho’s Windmill strip club and a course of plastic surgery, accompanied by the slogan: “Spice up your wife.”
Ms Marriage’s exposé claimed judicious scalps within hours of publication. By yesterday afternoon, the President’s Club said it would not host any further fundraising events.
That decision came after an uproar in the House of Commons, charities returning donations and after businessman David Meller – the President’s Club trustee – quit his role at the Mayor’s Fund for London and the Department for Education. WPP, the world’s largest advertising group, also swiftly severed ties.
The Dorchester debacle is a timely reminder of what Jo Swinson, deputy leader of the Lib Dems, describes as “the rotten, sexist culture.. still alive and kicking in parts of the business community”.
That this despicable behaviour occurred at the height of the #MeToo and #Time’sUp movement that has swept the globe – exposing distressing levels of sexual abuse and harassment of women in the workforce – also shows a staggering lack of self-awareness and leadership by many powerful men – and it is still men – who rule the world.
The backlash against the ‘FT’ exposé in its comments section and elsewhere also proves that no matter how much progress we think we’re making in the elimination of misogyny, it remains a stubborn societal stain.
This, ultimately, is the price we all pay – and the burden women in particular bear – for an unequal society.
Men, the vast majority of whom are respectful towards women, are victims of this culture of impunity, too.
The multi-headed hydra of misogyny and brute power has proved an impossible beast to slay. And as long as esteemed Companies of Men bear silent witness, it’s here to stay.