Why the financial world and big business will never have a #MeToo moment

“It’s all just banter.”
“It’s all just banter.”
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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The world took a collective, digital gasp when the Financial Times unloaded its jaw-dropping investigation into The Presidents Club—an annual men only charity fundraiser that features the (alleged) sexual harassment of hostesses as the plat du jour on its menu of events.

Under the pretext of a black-tie dinner and auction, around 130 young, female hostesses are hired to attend to the needs of the business barons who bid on things like lunch with UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson, and tea with Bank of England governor Mark Carney.

According to the article, the hostesses are told their job is merely  to ensure their designated tables of attendees have all the alcohol they want. But as they try to get on with it, they are met with groping, come-ons, and other inappropriate behavior that only gets worse as the rich, privileged men get drunker; at the after party, one captain of industry encouraged a hostess to remove her underwear and dance on a table.

In the new era of gender politics, where there has been a paradigm shift in power across various industries following #MeToo movement, one would be forgiven in thinking the Financial Times investigation, which had seeming unequivocal evidence of heinous acts of harassment, would signal the end of this behavior.

But, any who know or have experienced the world of big business and finance know that it’s unlikely anything will actually change.

* * *

The Presidents Club has met for over 30 years and the results of the FT investigation are unlikely to be a one off. It’s only because it was caught on camera and snared in an investigation that this one party is shutting down. But, it is just one of myriad smaller and larger gatherings that take place on a daily basis. There’s been absolutely no consequence to the range of business executives, CEOs, and companies in attendance, or firms who sponsored a table that evening. Some have now withdrawn their support for the club—pats on the back all round.

Anyone who has ever witnessed similar events, numerous in the world of the rich and affluent, know that the newspaper’s description of the treatment of women is sadly typical.

In the financial world, lewd jokes, sexist language, even unwanted physical contact from hand holding or being pulled onto someone’s lap, as described in FT investigation between guests and hostesses, as well as groping are, well, normal. You don’t need a special event for that, you get this at some conferences during the mixer hour. This behavior is insidious and prevalent in an industry that is hated yet loved; envied for its power and excess. That envy feeds into the feeling among the powerful that these types of acts can be perpetuated without consequence. But that’s where the similarities between the financial world and the likes of Hollywood end.

When the #MeToo movement reemerged following the seismic revelations about Harvey Weinstein, it set up a domino effect of exposing individuals in Hollywood who stand of accused of rape, sexual harassment, and various illegal acts. Following suit, #MeToo gave courage for many to speak out against various titans of other industries, such as in publishing, technology, and the arts. As the toll of formerly-powerful, now disgraced men grew, there’s been one sector that has yet to see a single executive be apprehended—finance. That’s not because Wall Street and the Square Mile have a perfect track record with women.

It has been months since the first explosion of #MeToo. We’re now in the depressingly predictable stage of the backlash to the movement. We get traitorous women like Catherine Deneuve slamming the #MeToo movement as anti-male, we have Men’s Rights activists hijacking the campaign, tweeting #notallmen and calling it a witch hunt, we have critics co-opting the act of “knee-touching” as a way to say that women are being overly sensitive to men in their industries, and dialogue that has started to focus on wrongdoing and misconduct as only unacceptable if it is illegal.

All-in-all, this makes it even more unlikely that we’ll see headway in gaining justice within the financial world.

* * *

The (alleged) acts at The Presidents Club’s recent event are totally unshocking for the initiated, and the complicity is just part and the parcel, if you’re in big business.

Yes, Hollywood moguls are powerful in one way, but they don’t run banks, they don’t give financing to infrastructure projects, they aren’t able to take away your house, they aren’t players in global trade, and they don’t have the ability to manipulate the public into buying or not buying your goods. They also aren’t in charge of your oil and your electricity, or the jobs of millions of people, the country’s economy, or starting wars—financiers and big business control this. Women have always been their currency.

From the strip clubs brokers take traders to on client nights out to the high-end prostitutes bankers procure for big investors in the bar of a famous London hotel that everyone knows about, women have typically been exchanged like contracts. If a woman does make it into the world, in whatever capacity, she’s expected to dress and look a certain way.

Times are slightly changing, but not quick enough. That’s why it can seem so wholly offensive to some man in a suit if you’re at a major conference and you aren’t conforming. According to the FT report, hostesses (who were asked to apply if they were “tall, thin and pretty” were told to wear “black sexy shoes and black underwear” and to also “do their hair and make-up as they would to go to a ‘smart sexy place.'” Is it really that much of a surprise considering it’s entirely legal (and encouraged) for professional firms to force women to wear heels to work? Asking a hostess to do the same is just part of the deal.

* * *

At big events or conferences, you don’t have to be a waitress to be inappropriately touched or have lewd comments thrown at you. It’s pretty common ground. Although, as a waitress at these types of events, the kicks financiers must get from the huge imbalance in social stature is no doubt part of the allure.

As young as 16 years old, I used to waitress at black tie and elite events, which included many of these types of charitable dinners every week. There are too many to name but in manor houses in Surrey or wealthy golf clubs in the Queen’s county, I was there, serving wine and delivering silver service food to some of the country’s most powerful executives. I was also told to only ever wear skirts by the agency I worked for on behalf of clients, and that high heels were more “professional.” Lewd language was probably the easiest thing to deal with, but having your body parts touched by lecherous men was not. Once I had to defend myself to my events supervisor, who had received a complaint that I wasn’t smiling enough and that I should have a better sense of humor. It was the same person who had grabbed me while I was serving dessert. “Well, don’t you want any tips?” my supervisor replied.

As the #MeToo movement has shown, women don’t speak out because it’s rare that consequences will be brought onto people who have harassed them. Are you willing to become a professional pariah for reporting some old creepy fund manager kept trying to hold your hand at a conference, or some lecherous barrow boy stroked the inside of your thigh when you went to pick up your bag? Or, if you were perved on by a CEO, who has enough money to buy and sell your entire family generations over, would you be willing to take them on in public? Do you have enough money to pay for the lawyer’s fees? Furthermore, are you willing to give up your career for this?

After all, we are told that this is “boys will be boys” and this is workplace “banter,” and that whether you are finance professional or hired to serve food and drinks (which many are apparently confusing with sex work) at an event that involves financiers, “you knew what you were getting yourself into” so suck it up, buttercup.

Even if you don’t make a statement to the police, who do you complain to? Look at the system they’ve erected to safeguard themselves, perpetuating “your word against theirs.” It’s all about the language of legality, which ignores questions over basic human respect and decency.

The Dorchester said in a statement that “we are unaware of any allegations and should we be contacted we will work with the relevant authorities as necessary” while the (female) head of the company that procures hostesses for these events said “there is a code of conduct that we follow, I am not aware of any reports of sexual harassment and with the calibre of guest, I would be astonished.” On top of that, the brochure for the night itself apparently included a “full-page warning that no attendees or staff should be sexually harassed.” It might have well been written on toilet paper.

* * *

The closure of The Presidents Club means nothing.

It’s not uncommon for politicians or those involved in public office to quit over sex scandals, so the resignation of David Meller as a non-executive director at the UK’s Department for Education is really no big deal. Neither are the obviously predictable disingenuous actions, like the Bank of England revoking its auction prize of tea with governor Mark Carney, or WPP ending its support for the event. With the large amount of money being donated from The Presidents Club, charities like Great Ormond Street would know where the money is coming from. (Indeed, BBC TV reported that Great Ormond Street was previously warned about the nature of the event; yet they still took the money.) They may be giving the cash back now but it’s a sad state of affairs that they’d happily accepted the money before. (All the benefitting charities claim they didn’t know about the environment at The Presidents Club.)

This club’s failures weren’t due to one man or business. Every attendee was complicit. It’s the same with any event where money exchanges hands or power is traded—they are all implicitly complicit in making it happen.

Especially in Britain, with our society’s pathetic obsession with tradition, which actively prevents social progression and mobility, men only clubs are part of our DNA. Known originally as Gentlemen’s Clubs, these were set up in the 18th century by the affluent and the rich: aristocrats, businessmen, and financiers. The trend caught on later in the US and in commonwealth countries.

Men only clubs like The Presidents Club thrive on privacy, only bringing in women to serve food and drinks, or seemingly to be leached on. It’s hardly surprising that Gentlemen’s Clubs are now more commonly known as strip clubs. Perhaps the most recent pop culture representation was shown in Netflix’s The Crown, where the Duke of Edinburgh’s Thursday Club featured prominently. But in 2018, men only clubs still exist.

As with much wrongdoing by the wealthy, the President’s Club used goodwill as a fig leaf to get up to its real purpose, behind closed doors. The few attendees who responded questions from to the FT about the event almost instantly mentioned it took place in the name of charity and critics of the investigation are quick to talk about how raising money for the less fortunate trump all—as if throwing money around atones everyone from wrongdoing.

This investigation is going to burn bright in the media and then die out just as fast. It’s going to be talked about in an esoteric way to the elite in places like Davos and be sold in a way and spoken in a language that perpetuates the norm. For example, stopping sexual harassment being “good for business” or the fact men have been “left out of the conversation.” In Davos this week, it also didn’t take long for one panel participant to talk about how it’s not “just” about naming perpetrators or making a list of wrongdoers.

This is all music to the ears of the elite. It’s not going to change the day-to-day aggressions against women, it hasn’t led to a single person or company not related to public office being punished, let alone a “list” being made, nor has any attendee even so much as admitted that the events actually occurred.

The #MeToo movement has made a great strides for women across so many industries, but as for finance, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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Read more: The unexpected, paradigm-shifting power of #MeToo