Photo: Hulu
A scene from The Handmaid's Tale (Photo: Hulu)

OPINION

The Presidents Club scandal proves women are undeniably vulnerable in the workplace

It read like a hellfire scene from the Republic of Gilead, says Kat Lister. A twisted reminder of who’s still in charge – rich, entitled men

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By Kat Lister on

Amid the gasps of abhorrence, disgust and rage yesterday was another kind of voice altogether. A voice many of us have grown weary of hearing. In response to a Financial Times investigative exposé that blew the roof off The Presidents Club men-only charity gala – and, ultimately, achieved real change: shut it down – two business executives who attended the seedy gathering issued a rebuttal to the cries of institutional sexism, harassment and exploitation. "They are not underage girls,” they told the Financial Times, “They are all over 18, they know what they are doing.” Another described the event as akin to a “rugby club dinner”.

For any lucid person reading about this annual grubby black-tie event, the seedy details paint a different picture altogether – and not that of a rowdy night out at the rugby club; not from the vantage point of a sweaty property mogul, who thinks women are as much of a commodity as the bricks and mortar he hustles. But a hellfire scene from the Republic of Gilead.

“Horrible how closely the #PresidentsClub resembles the Jezebels scene from A Handmaid's Tale,” The Independent columnist Kirsty Major tweeted in reaction to the Financial Times’s allegations that “women were told to wear skimpy black outfits with matching underwear and high heels”. Part of the entertainment, it would seem, were the 130 specially hired hostesses working the floor that night – and it recalls Margaret Atwood’s imagined underground brothel (referred to as “the club” in The Handmaids Tale), where seedy high-ranking officials act out their male privilege behind closed hotel doors. 

Swap your MPs and Goldman Sachs bankers for Commander Waterford styling Offred (Atwood’s protagonist’s slave name) with a skimpy dress to serve the male gaze, and we’re not so far from fiction. "They all know it's a bit racy,” one business executive told the Financial Times, defending their sordid club. “There is free champagne, they can have a drink, they have fun. Do things happen after? God knows. They can always complain to the police if so."

In other words, the hostesses knew what they were signing up for. Literally. “Upon arrival at the Dorchester, the first task given to the hostesses was to sign a five-page non-disclosure agreement about the event,” the FT reported. “Hostesses were not given a chance to read its contents, or take a copy with them after signing.” In the wake of #MeToo, post-Weinstein and in the midst of another rolling presidential story – Donald Trump’s alleged pay-off to a porn star who goes by the name Stormy Daniels – the shadow of the non-disclosure agreement looms large. And, although it rarely grabs the headlines, it still seeks to disempower women behind the scenes. Ironic, then, that the song the organisers picked for the hostesses to parade in to was, in fact – get this – Power, by girl band Little Mix. Not so much an anthem for female empowerment on this occasion, but a twisted reminder of who was really in charge that night. Yes, you guessed it: rich, entitled men.

Which brings me to writer Laurie Penny’s searing point on Twitter this morning. “Not every woman putting up with sexual harassment on the job has one eye on a career in the movies,” Penny tweeted, “some just want to get through the day and cover their bills.”

It’s about working women who lack a platform and a voice – in boardrooms, catering kitchens, science labs and on shop floors. Women with bills to pay. The Presidents Club story is really about employment rights

By shrugging these women off as high-end hostesses, who “knew what they were doing”, we’re glossing over an important point. This isn’t, as columnist Camilla Long unhelpfully called it, “clickbait” that belongs on the pages of Marie Claire. As the #MeToo campaign has so powerfully demonstrated, it’s not even really about sex. Neither is it a story that begins and ends in affluent locations such as The Dorchester or Hollywood. It’s about working women who lack a platform and a voice – in boardrooms, catering kitchens, science labs and on shop floors. Women with bills to pay. The Presidents Club story is really about employment rights.

This week, the Fawcett Society reiterated what Hollywood’s Time’s Up campaign declared last month  – in order to eradicate sexual harassment, we have to tackle the power imbalance that disenfranchises women in the workplace. In an extensive study, the charity warned that we are failing to tackle a “deeply misogynistic culture”, demanding a strengthening of laws to protect women from third-party sexual harassment at work. As I type, thousands are signing a petition to reinstate a workplace sexual-harassment clause that was repealed in 2013. According to the Change.org petition, this small print really matters – without it, “the Presidents Club who hosted this event have no legal responsibility over what happened to these women”.

Ultimately, the FT’s “Jezebels” story is really about an abuse of power. And, while the Commanders feign ignorance, ultimately dodging responsibility, the hostesses who “knew the deal” get scoffed at.

Like Atwood’s totalitarian dystopia, however, their excuses are a fiction. In the pits of all the groping, pinching, genitalia-flashing and up-skirting, it’s important to remind ourselves that, despite our deepest fears, we’re not in Gilead. At least, not yet – despite the Trump-Weinstein effect. Yesterday, an undercover female reporter managed the unthinkable: she shut The Commanders down. There are others, no doubt. The White House still looms large.

Another day, another President's Club. You know what Offred would say: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

Don’t let the bastards get you down.

@Madame_George

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A scene from The Handmaid's Tale (Photo: Hulu)
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sexual harassment
women at work
Sexism

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