Presidents Club scandal underlines need for behavioural progress

Since the Harvey Weinstein scandal hit Hollywood in 2017, women’s rights and sexual impropriety became an issue at the heart of the entertainment industry and beyond.

Sexual impropriety and predatory behaviour have been outed on a regular basis since, with the likes of Kevin Spacey under the spotlight and US Olympic gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar sentenced to 40 to 175 years after testimony from nearly 160 of his victims.

Numerous actresses and other personalities have marched and spoken out, empowered by the declarations of others that spoke before them. The damn of fear and silence was broken.

At the Golden Globes, most attendees wore black with Meryl Streep attending with National Domestic Workers Alliance director and activist Ai-jen Poo and others also bringing those who work tirelessly to fight inequality and injustice.

Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Globes was considered so impressive and inspiring that she is being touted for a run at the White House.

Back in London, a scandal has erupted this week after revelations by Financial Times journalist Madison Marriage highlighted the raucous and inappropriate behaviour at the men-only Presidents Club charity dinner at The Dorchester Hotel.

Ms Marriage reported that “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.”

Auction prizes at the event, which often raises a seven-figure sum for good causes, courtesy of attendees ranging from businessmen to politicians, film producers to financiers.

Once the story was published, it became clear that the 33-year-old event harked back to an age of misogyny and harassment that #MeToo and #TimesUp was supposed to combat.

Speeches were made in the House of Commons, Children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi was chastised by his party for attending, and Department for Education director David Meller resigned from his post.

The Presidents Club itself said it was closing and would no longer hold events while some charities said they would return past donations.

The events that unfolded last week and appear to have happened at previous events as well, should be a stark reminder that talk is cheap and that much needs to be done to ensure sexism, along with racism and homophobia and any other prejudice, becomes a thing of the past.

It underlines the importance for anyone attending an event to ensure that they are aware of its nature so that their own reputations are not sullied by association. The Bank of England and WPP both made statements declaring that they would no longer attend before the event was shut down for good.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: “Dragging progress for women's rights back 50 years in the name of charity is deplorable. This demonstrates how entrenched sexual harassment is in the workplace and how far we still have to go.”

But instead of universal outrage, there have been excuses from some quarters.

According to The Sun, the hostesses are over 18 and should be aware that the event is “racy” while another claimed it was comparable to a “rugby club dinner.”

Perhaps the most surprising response to the event was from Tina Knight, a successful businesswoman and who is described on a speakers’ website as “one of the Top Entrepreneurs of the World…and one of her most popular topics is that of women in business.”

With the gender wage gap still an issue and women hugely under-represented at board level, surely Ms Knight would share the general outrage.

“It's getting worse than McCarthyism isn't it, you know this touchy-feely world that we live in,” said Ms Knight on BBC Radio 5Live.

“I would not put somebody having a quick grope in the sexually harassed group, I mean we're living in a world now where no wonder they're inventing test tube babies because these poor blokes will be frightened to go near anybody.”

Whenever giving an interview, authenticity is key, but if you judge the mood of the public or of your key audiences incorrectly, the damage you can do to both your personal brand and the reputation of the organisation you represent can be significant.

Ms Knight’s comments show that much needs to be done in the UK and beyond to change attitudes towards inappropriate sexual behaviour, inequality and the treatment of women.

The closing of the Presidents Club needs to be a watershed moment rather than an isolated incident.