What’s curious about the Presidents Club dinner

Forgive me for being late to the afterparty with this, but the now-notorious the Presidents Club charity dinner touches on more issues than first meet the eye.

It’s easy to be appalled by the dinner, where women working as hostesses were instructed to wear skimpy dresses, and its afterparty, at which some of the guests – wealthy business leaders – harassed and groped some of them.

But what is odd is that we’re surprised. Get a group of people together who have lots of power and wealth (A), put them alongside another who have a lot less (B), and chances are that group A will exploit group B. Especially if alcohol is involved.

A second odd aspect of this has to do with men-only spaces. While the older generation mocks the younger one for wanting “safe spaces” free from views they find offensive, some men feel entirely entitled to defend women-free spaces to the hilt.

Why are there men-only dinners today anyway? Our own Monarch, Prime Minister and Home Secretary, and the First Ministers of Scottish and Northern Ireland, would be barred. Yet a set of men-only London clubs forms a vital part of Britain’s establishment, threaded through with a rich long heritage of men helping other men with jobs and contacts and, most importantly of all, the warm confidence of being “one of us”. As long as these spaces are allowed to remain men-only, talk of inclusion in the workplace will have limited success.

Another odd detail about the dinner was the items up for auction. They included tea with Bank of England governor Mark Carney, who told BBC Radio 4 he knew nothing of it (issues of consent aren’t limited to women). And take a look at this from the FT report: “Richard Caring, who made his fortune in the retail sourcing business before scooping up a long list of London’s most fashionable restaurants, including The Ivy and Scott’s, rounded off the money-raising portion of the evening with a successful £400,000 bid to place his name on a new High Dependency Unit at the Evelina London children’s hospital for sick children.”

The Caring Ward might seem an oxymoron, but I assumed that a hospital would have some say over the name of its wards. They might choose to honour a major benefactor, but they wouldn’t have a name imposed on them by the highest bidder, would they? Otherwise such a scheme would be open to someone buying themselves a reputation rather than wanting to contribute to a good cause. (I’m not questioning Mr Caring’s motives, and £400,000 is a lot of money.) But as a general principle, similar to when it emerged that internships were appearing as charity auction prizes rather than being offered on a basis of merit, honours or opportunities or access that suggest a recognition of talent or good character should stay away from the Darwinian process of an auction. Money is not necessarily short-hand for either.

A final odd aspect of the Presidents Club fallout was the strength of indignation, given that the dinner has been going on for several years and had acquired quite a reputation. The Evelina hospital’s local newspaper reported that it will not only refuse the £400,000 but will return another £265,000 given by the Presidents Club over the last 10 years. Ouch. Even in these austere times, there was a litany of charities returning donations. The rich will have to be persuaded to open their wallets without the encouragement of a young woman in a skimpy dress.

In yesterday’s Telegraph Elizabeth Day looked at growing complaints from female actors of inappropriate behaviour during sex scenes directed by men. Whaddya know – the sex scenes that for many awkward adolescents can be so instructive, and to which we give a sort of collective consent by watching, reflect a man’s ideals, not a woman’s. Day hails female directors, and a move towards ensuring that film sets are “safe spaces”. That’s a safe space that should be incontrovertibly defended. Is public tolerance for sexism and chauvinism reaching an end? If so, I look forward to seeing what follows.

Author: Abigail Frymann Rouch

Abigail Frymann Rouch is a religious and social affairs journalist. She has written for the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent, Channel4.com and Deutsche Welle. As a commentator she has appeared on Sky News, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service, BBC World News, and regional radio. For nine years she was foreign editor, then online editor, of The Tablet.

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