Undercover at the now-infamous Presidents Club dinner, the sexual harassment reporter Madison Marriage faced will shock you
Words by Madison Marriage
If I had to sum up the now infamous Presidents Club dinner in one word, it would be: grotesque.
I was at the Presidents Club annual fundraising dinner as one of 130 hostesses hired to wait on an exclusively male guestlist of wealthy businessmen, politicians and financiers. What the organisers did not know is that I was there as an undercover reporter for the Financial Times, after learning that many women who had previously worked at the event as hostesses had been subjected to sexual harassment. “We were pieces of meat,” one former hostess told me during my research.
‘Parading before a crowd of 360 braying men’
There was a steady stream of uncomfortable experiences from the moment I arrived at the Dorchester at 4pm through to when the 130 hostesses – myself included – were told to enter the ballroom at 8pm by parading across a stage before a crowd of 360 braying men.
The tallest women were made to go first while ‘Power’ by Little Mix played across the venue. There was a cruel irony in that choice of song title given the huge imbalance of power in the room that night. The women were largely students or part-time dancers or models in their late teens and early twenties who were there to earn £150 from a 10-hour shift. The men were influential, rich and mostly pushing into their fifties and sixties.
But there was one moment that replays in my head again and again, which was by no means the worst thing that happened to me that night but was an early sign of the more abusive behaviour that would come later. It also demonstrated the incredible sense of entitlement among those present that evening.
‘He started to hold and stroke my hand’
The evening formally kicked off at 8pm, and as it got underway I approached a table that was not being served and asked two of the men seated whether they needed a top-up. As we chatted, the man to my left – who I later discovered is the sixty-something chairman of a large property business – started to hold and stroke my hand. I was initially too surprised, and too embarrassed, to do anything that would draw attention to what he was doing. As soon as I felt able to, I retracted my hand and moved away. I had a very similar experience with another prominent businessman who is well known in the hotel industry a few minutes later.
I know some people might say that holding or stroking a woman’s hand is a harmless gesture, and not worth making a fuss about. I disagree. It was just one small example of the testosterone fuelled arrogance on display in the Dorchester that night where the male guests assumed they could behave however they wanted with the female staff. In my view, unwanted physical contact in any professional environment simply is not okay.
And if someone in a position in power can get away with caressing a worker’s hand, what else can they get away with? A hand on the waist, on a knee, on a thigh – where does it stop? As I later discovered, it doesn’t necessarily.
‘I was groped by three different men later that evening’
In an environment where that kind of behaviour is permissible or even encouraged, the likelihood of more serious forms of sexual harassment taking place increases. I was groped by three different men later that evening. Numerous women told me they had similar experiences from men who in the normal light of day are considered to be pillars of society – CBEs, chief executives and philanthropists.
The impact of this investigation went much further than I ever imagined. Within days of its publication, the Presidents Club Charitable Trust had closed and its trustees had stepped down from a number of government roles and directorships. A public petition to reform the law to give greater legal rights to workers who experience sexual harassment in the workplace gained more than 100,000 signatures.
The story was debated in the Houses of Parliament and the House of Lords, and Prime Minister Theresa May said she was “appalled” by the behaviour of the attendees. The Charities Commission, the regulator, opened a formal investigation into the Presidents Club and its trustees, while charities that received donations from the Presidents Club promised to improve their due diligence procedures.
‘The reputational damage from being associated with the Presidents Club has been huge’
Many of the companies that sponsored tables at the event sent detailed apologies to their staff, and conference organisers have already changed their practices to ensure a more balanced mix of male and female hospitality staff.
Even if the push for legal reform, the regulator’s investigation and the political uproar over this investigation all come to nothing, my hope is that this story will change how men in positions of power in this country interact with women – whether staff, clients, or total strangers.
The reputational damage from being associated with the Presidents Club has been huge, and women are more willing than ever before to call out bad behaviour. Those who fail to stamp out the poor treatment of women – and particularly those who actively engage in sexual harassment or assault – will face consequences.