Presidents Club proves the habits of the expense-rich sexist old boys network will die hard

After the male-dominated business environment of old, and the lap dancing on expenses culture of the Nineties, things may be changing, but slowly and mainly because of worries about budgets and bribery allegations

Adam Lusher
Wednesday 24 January 2018 20:31
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'I was groped': Journalist Madison Marriage talks about hostessing at the Presidents Club Charity Dinner

Groping seen at many tables. A 19-year-old asked by a man in his seventies if she was a prostitute.

A “gentlemen only” dinner for business and finance leaders where the young, female ‘hostesses” were expected to wear “sexy” shoes and black underwear, and a “society figure” could tell a woman worker: “I want you to down that glass [of champagne], rip off your knickers and dance on that table.”

A vision of the past, surely? Not something that would ever happen today, in the world of sexual harassment lawsuits, workplace equality policies, “#MeToo” and universal outrage at the alleged behaviour of Harvey Weinstein.

According to the Financial Times report, all these incidents are supposed to have happened last Thursday, in London, at the men-only charity dinner of the Presidents Club.

Cue outrage, and not a little shock.

But though the outrage was understandable, perhaps the shock was a little misplaced.

If the glib – occasionally rueful - assumption has been that “political correctness” long ago made such all-male occasions impossible, the Presidents Club dinner is a reminder that old habits die hard.

Although the previous reminder wasn’t all that long ago.

In 2015 The Independent reported on the dinner, in Portman Square, London, of the Transport Golfing Society, for men – and only men – in the transport industry.

Again, as the businessmen enjoyed the food and, presumably, the networking opportunities, the only women present were waitresses, can-can dancers and “a glamorous string quartet playing exciting music in even more exciting tight dresses”.

In fairness, there was none of the harassment alleged to have occurred at the Presidents Club dinner.

Photos posted online showed just a “handsome body of men enjoying their dinner” and female performers in thigh-cut dresses bringing “a new spectacle to the dinner”.

But the “sexist” event still led to calls for Boris Johnson, then the London Mayor, to take action against his Commissioner of Transport for London Sir Peter Hendy, who had been invited to attend by a Scottish bus manufacturer.

Sir Peter responded in robust terms: “I am not, and never have been, a member of the Transport Golfing Society. I have no relationship with it and I don’t play golf either … In my memory there has never been inappropriate entertainment of any sort … The highlight of the evening for me has been singing carols.

“It never occurred to me there was a policy of excluding women and that hasn’t been referred to in the invitations I have received.

“I will on no account accept an invitation again.

“I abhor sexism in any form and [it] is particularly inappropriate in an industry in which women are under-represented and in which we are promoting careers and equality for women.”

In a way, Sir Peter’s response was an indication of the way things are heading – albeit that the gentleman-only dinner showed just how slowly they were getting there.

In the City today, men in their forties talk of male-only events as being the preserve of “the worshipful order of whatever, the older guys, definitely”.

Perhaps, then, it is no coincidence that the FT reported that it was a man in his seventies who allegedly asked the 19-year-old if she was a prostitute.

Men of that vintage came of age well before the “big bang” that deregulated the City of London in 1986.

They can remember an era when business was done face-to-face, over a long lunch, with a merchant banker who may well also have been an earl, and who would certainly have been male.

In this world, the women were almost always secretaries, or wives awaiting their husband’s return from the City.

Perhaps, in some, it instilled a mindset, a certain way of doing business and bonding with other 'gentlemen'.

One solicitor can recall arriving at a City law firm in the early 1990s and an ageing senior partner telling him half-jokingly, but cheerfully, that when deciding the merits of a female job candidate, he liked to consider whether they had the “tingle” factor.

Men only a little younger than that senior partner can recall convivial off-duty dinners in the 1960s, at restaurants catering for the boisterous all-male crowd, where one of the assembled company could loudly tell the serving ‘wenches’: “Bring me another bottom! This one doesn’t pinch well enough.”

If that was accepted as all rather jolly, the “loadsamoney” culture of the Thatcherite Eighties, followed by the arrival of the first UK lap dancing clubs in 1995, may have added a sleazier aspect to the corporate entertainment.

“When I started back in the Nineties,” said one City fund manager, “It was massive. Lap dancing was a big part of the whole business.”

This, after all, was the pre-crash era of investment bankers bonding over dinners that racked up a £44,000 wine bill, with the flashier trading teams, among them Jeffrey Archer’s son James, becoming known by the name of their favourite ‘flaming Ferrari” cocktail.

By 2009 the Fawcett Society was finding that 86 per cent of London lap dancing clubs were offering “discreet receipts” so you could put the corporate entertaining through expenses without the name of the establishment appearing.

More than 40 per cent of lap dancing club websites, the Fawcett Society found, were directly targeting employers, with offers that included corporate membership options and tailored corporate hospitality packages.

Corporate clients were a huge part of the business, with one lap dancing club owner quoted as saying that nearly all his weekday customers were businessmen.

All this despite the fact that the Fawcett Society also found, pretty unsurprisingly, that “60per cent of women would be very or fairly uncomfortable working for an organisation that allows its employees to use lap dancing venues for entertaining clients.”

At the same time as the Fawcett Society reported, Labour’s Harriet Harman, then the Equalities Minister, was demanding that visits to lap-dancing clubs should not be regarded as a legitimate business expense, and telling chancellor Alistair Darling they should not attract tax relief.

It’s not entirely clear what, if any, difference that made. Three years later, in 2012, one accountant was asking online about whether a boss could put “strip club expenses” through his limited company on the grounds that it was “client entertainment”.

This being an accountants’ forum, discussion swiftly turned from strippers to “an interaction between S.336 and Ss.356-358 ITEPA 2003”of the regulations, but not before everyone had agreed that taking clients to watch women remove their clothes was a tax allowable expense.

And today there are plenty of lap dancing clubs – or “gentleman’s clubs” as they prefer to style themselves - that still expressly promote themselves as venues for team bonding or corporate entertainment.

The Gaslight of St. James club, for example, says its “first class service” and central London location make it the “perfect place” to entertain a business colleague.

Advising the uninitiated of the “10 things you are likely to see at a gentleman’s club” its website lists “naked women” and “businessmen”.

“Although it may not seem the most obvious choice of destination to entertain clients,” the website explains, “It is a fairly popular one. Many professionals will arrange informal meetings with their clients at a gentleman’s club, due to the relaxed and friendly atmosphere.”

But some in the City insist there has been change, taking things away from the use of male-only events and lap dancing as corporate entertainment.

“I’m sure it does still go on,” said one source, “But I don’t think it is a big part of the culture.”

What is also interesting, though, are the reasons cited.

There is not much discussion of changing attitudes, but plenty of talk about the Bribery Act 2010 and regulations against accepting anything that might be seen as inducement.

And there is a noticeable wistfulness about the tightening of expense budgets that followed the 2008 crash.

Now, some say, if you are thinking of client entertainment that might cost more than £100, you’ll need to get prior authorisation first.

Peter Stringfellow himself has alluded to the issue. In 2016 he told Business Insider that businessmen remained the “backbone” of his eponymous club. But the type of businessman had changed.

Now they were men from overseas, on business trips away from home.

The “city boys”, said Stringfellow, stopped coming when the banks cut their expenses for entertaining clients down to "£100 to £125 per head per night."

In similar vein, when in 2008 Deutsche Bank told its employees that it “does not approve of adult entertainment and will not repay such expenses," it did so amid a raft of austerity measures that cut hotel allowances and restricted bankers to economy class for train journeys of two hours or less.

The fund manager who remembered the lap dancing clubs did so with little fondness for them. But he did wonder whether his younger colleagues were missing out on the fun of the booze-ups he had once enjoyed.

“They are way more professional than we ever were,” he said, with almost fatherly concern. “I do sometimes worry about the way they are so extremely focussed on their work.”

Whether the 19-year-old allegedly propositioned at the Presidents Club dinner would share such worries about the younger generation is another matter.

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