The Financial Times have done a piece of undercover journalism that you might think happened in 1958 but in fact occurred in 2018. In case you haven’t seen it, you can read it here – they’ve dropped the paywall so off you go, no excuses now.
It’s been written carefully enough so that although people have been named and shamed, no one has been directly accused of anything and there is even a disclaimer to say that the seating plan the Financial Times has seen is not a guaranteed understanding of the list of actual attendees. But to be honest I don’t care. It’s enough of a totally galling blow to the concept of respect for women or treating us like humans that this event exists. It’s enough that the men invited are at the tops of their fields, are influencers and big names. It’s enough that the only women who are in the room are the ones who are there for entertainment, for display. It is enough that this event has existed for 33 years in whatever iterations it has been and not one of those men has ever thought to blow the whistle. For. Shame. All of them should feel as sick about themselves as I do.
While reading this article I kept thinking “oh it can’t get worse, can it?”
But of course, it can. You’d think I wouldn’t be quite so naive as to think that all those things are enough. The exposé mentions that the dinner raised more than two million pounds for charity…but what is the cost of that? Sure, these men are cracking out their cheque books and bidding on mostly innocuous high end prizes (the slogan “spice up your wife” for the plastic surgery prize was a fresh wave of totally disrespectful, reductive to women nausea) but who is really paying the price of this event for these charities? Because to me it looks like that money comes at the cost of the safety of 130 young women. Someone might bid £400 000 on
feeding his ego sorry, on naming a children’s hospital wing after himself, but if he’s doing it while sticking his hand up an 18 year old’s skirt who thought she was coming to do a black tie event as a hostess…doesn’t that somehow defeat the point?
“Oh but it’s not the men’s fault that there are young women there” – sure, the men didn’t hire them and we’ll come on to who did in a minute, but it’s funny because I’ve been in a workplace or a restaurant before as a customer or an employee or a visitor. I’ve never felt the need to grope someone. I’ve never felt the need or the desire really to just sexually assault and harass someone while they offer me a drink. You’d think these moguls and businessmen might be able to take some kind of responsibility for their actions right? We all get to decide how we behave. One of them could have blown the whistle. One of them could have decided this wasn’t an acceptable way to treat other human beings. I’ve also worked as a hostess for events before but you know what? I’ve never had someone stick their hand up my skirt while I’m offering round canapés and been told that “it’s a Marmite job. Some girls love it, and for other girls it’s the worst job of their life and they will never do it again” by the woman who has hired me. As if I’m supposed to just take it as part of acceptable working conditions.
So speaking of Caroline Dandridge…I find it really hard to contain my loathing of this person. To put it bluntly, what kind of person, what kind of woman sends young women into an environment where there is such a high risk of them being sexually assaulted, they’re basically meant to expect it? Except they’re not. The men are referred to as “annoying”. Not “harassing you and illegally touching your body without consent.” Not “in an environment set up for them to feel like they’re allowed to commit a sexual crime.” Just “annoying”. I can think of lots of things that are annoying – people humming, public transport being delayed, when I leave the house without an umbrella because it’s sunny but then the weather changes really quickly and suddenly it starts to rain and I wish I had that umbrella. Those are all prime examples of annoying things. You know what’s not annoying Caroline? It’s when you go to work as a young woman expecting to serve drinks and instead of that you get groped and touched against your will.
But it’s ok everyone, it’s ok because Caroline Dandridge’s organisation Artista has what the Financial Times calls “an enforcement team” and when you read that phrase you think “oh phew, good they’ve got people in place to protect the young women in case things get out of hand” but no that’s actually not what they’re for. They’re there “prodding less active hostesses to interact with dinner guests”. So the enforcement team are there to make sure the young women don’t take themselves out of an uncomfortable or difficult situation where they feel their personal safety is compromised. The enforcement team are there to make sure the women don’t escape to safety or take a break from being physically violated.
“Maybe they can go to the toilets!” You might think, in a desperate attempt to find a place of respite. Yes! Good idea – the toilet! That’s a place where for decades women have sought refuge, hidden and cried and regrouped themselves to return to the battle that is working and living in the patriarchy. The toilet – that will feel safe. They can hide there for 10 minutes and-Nope. According to the report from the Financial Times:
“Outside the women’s toilets a monitoring system was in place: women who spent too long were called out and led back to the ballroom. A security guard at the door was on hand, keeping time.”
Oh did I mention also that their phones are taken away? But if something awful does go down, they’re told by Caroline Dandridge to contact her except she phrases it as “if any of the men become too annoying”. How does she want them to contact her? By pigeon? By standing a minute and looking for her? Oh no wait, stand for too long and you’ll be hustled by someone throwing you back into the threatening situation you’re trying to leave. This woman has systematically stripped 130 young women of their ability to have any kind of safety. She’s taken away their ability to rest for a minute and regroup. She’s timing them on the toilets. No partners are allowed at the event. No support system. And she’s taken away their phones. So no outside contact or ability to call for outside help. This woman has single handedly enabled a room full of already entitled men to take advantage of women who are younger and more vulnerable than them. Caroline Dandridge tells them their phones will be “safely locked away” but there’s nothing safe about it. Well OK maybe the phones will be safe, but the women certainly won’t be.
“But these women are choosing to be there and some of them have done it before and some of them love it!” I hear you defend. You might be right. Some of them probably need the money and make that choice knowingly. And some of them are strong enough to draw their own lines and decide what they do and don’t want and will be confident enough to say no when it’s too much. And some of them weigh up the choices and decide that even if they hate it maybe it won’t be so bad. But to me it sounds like it would be horrific. I mean, I’m not tall or particularly thin so I’d never make the cut but tables of older, rich and entitled men who think that because they have enough money they’re entitled to touch me wherever and however they want, who are then put into a room where they’re basically told that yes this is true…that’s a combination of about 7 different nightmares for me. These are men who have real power, real influence and could be part of more than just giving money to places. These are men who could be part of a social change, who could ensure their companies and spaces are safe not just for men but for women too. I don’t know what it’s like to be a man but if I were in that room and I knew that there were women being touched in ways they don’t want I couldn’t sit back and let it happen. I couldn’t just keep presenting or eating or standing there. I’d feel a sense of responsibility to them.
This is not the same as sex work or the sex industry. Because I imagine for this “black tie event” the job description doesn’t outline the need to accept a man groping you as part of your duties. There are many varying circumstances around sex work but I think generally the people know they’re going to do a job that involves some kind of sexual interaction. I don’t think that’s the case here and if it were made clear from the start I wonder how many legal ramifications Artista would run into. I wonder how many applicants they’d get. I wonder if the whole event would still want to run this way if they admitted openly what they’re doing and how they’re operating, if they directly addressed what they’re expecting of the young women who come to work there and what they’re allowing and enabling for the men who leer at them. This event happens and keeps happening because it’s allowed to be a well kept secret. The men won’t tell and the women have to sign non-disclosure agreements, so they can’t tell…or at least not without serious legal and probably financial consequences. I don’t imagine any of the “students…actresses, dancers or models [who] did occasional hosting work to make ends meet” can afford those kinds of consequences.
There are so many points of disgust for me that I could go on. I could write thousands of words about the power imbalance, the system, the patriarchy, how women are set up again and again to be taken advantage of and used and disregarded as people. But I have to end somewhere. So my final port of call is to commend the two women who went undercover and reported on the event. The women who may or may not have known what they were in for, the women who had to be “tall, thin and pretty” (the three criteria us women must have for any job of course) for £150 for a night’s work plus £25 for a taxi home. The undercover reporters who may well be those three perfectly fine things to be but who had to reduce themselves to be seen as being only those things for the sake of this job. And what a totally fantastic job they have done. If this were a show I’d be on my feet applauding and I don’t think everyone deserves a standing ovation. But these women do and I hope the consequence of their stellar reporting is that this event is brought to its knees. I hope that at every point there are people who will take a stand – the organisers, the supporters, the members and the charities who benefit from this event. I hope they all rethink what they’re doing; why they feel the need to behave this way and why they want to treat young women in this way.
I hope they raise even more money next year by inviting women to sit at the tables, rather than parading them to grope and sexually harass in their evening’s workplace.
Update: within hours of the story breaking but after I wrote this piece, it was announced that the Presidents Club will no longer be operating as a fundraising body and the charity dinner will not be held again.