A serious affair: why are women not allowed to serve lunch at the Nuclear Security Summit in the Hague?

 

Serving world leaders their lunch is a serious affair. No room for “blondes” or women in dresses then, it appears.

The Nuclear Security Summit is in its second day in The Hague and has brought leaders from 53 countries together to discuss ways of combating nuclear terrorism. The catering company responsible for feeding the leaders and delegates has made a controversial staffing decision: No female serving staff are working in the plenary room where the main talks are being held. Instead, only men over 25 have been given the privilege of serving the working lunches at the World Forum. The decision has sparked outrage on social media in The Netherlands, but why was it made in the first place?

According to Dutch national newspaper the Algemeen Dagblad, the director of the catering company, Hans van der Linde, was looking to create a “uniform” look amongst his staff. They quote him justifying his decision in the following manner: “If 20 gentlemen are serving and three platinum blonde ladies, then that spoils the image.

"The personnel needs to act in as reserved a manner as possible, and you can’t achieve that by adding a couple of pretty, conspicuous ladies to the mix,” he added.

The summit’s spokesperson Daphne Kerremans confirmed that the request was made for the serving staff to appear uniform. It was left up to the caterer to decide whether to staff the plenary events  with either all men, or all women.

 

In addition to the desire for uniformity, there may be other factors at play, says Jean-Paul Weijers, director of the Protocolbureau that is also involved in the summit. He believes that the decision for all-male staff within the main meeting area could be an attempt to prevent the world leaders from getting distracted. “Everything is taken into consideration when organising such an important gathering. That includes things like this.”

In addition, he says that the fact that there are world leaders from the Muslim world present may have influenced the decision making. “They understand that in the West there are different standards, but The Netherlands is a small country that is used to adapting quickly to bigger countries.”

The news unleashed a Twitter storm, with critics calling the decision ‘un-Dutch’ and a violation of human rights.

In an attempt to clarify himself, van der Linde spoke to Radio 1 about keeping his female employees out of the plenary sessions. He denied ever mentioning hair colour, and told the station that he had initially come up with “the creative idea to only employ ladies to serve the world leaders, and to have them do that in little Delft Blue dresses.” His idea was apparently rejected by the ministry of Foreign Affairs, who made it clear that a more sober appearance would be appropriate. Van der Linde added: “We also have to go up a very steep flight of stairs, so little dresses wouldn’t be practical, as you wouldn’t be able to lift your legs high enough”.

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