Sex and the City Culture

By Ms Roseanne Russell, Lecturer in Law (University of Bristol Law School).

Last week’s reports of the Presidents Club charity dinner once again revealed the troubling culture of the City: ‘that weird mix of cutting-edge high finance and caveman misogyny’ (Patrick Jenkins, Financial Times, 24 January 2018). Journalist Madison Marriage’s exposé recounted how 130 ‘hostesses’ were recruited for a fundraising dinner to be attended by 360 men from the worlds of politics, business and finance (Financial Times, 23 January 2018). Although it is not clear who attended, press reports have stated that the guest-list included senior executives from well-known corporate groups, bankers and hedge fund managers.

The well-intentioned aim of the evening’s auction was to raise money for charity. According to the Club’s website, ‘over the years, esteemed members of the investment, real estate, sports, entertainment, motor industry and fashion world have come together to support and raise millions of pounds for the trust in its work to help as many worthy children’s causes.’ Marriage’s report, however, painted a picture of the highly sexualised City culture that Linda McDowell so vividly captured in her 1997 book Capital Culture and by the Fawcett Society in its 2009 report on Sexism and the City. While ‘hostesses’ were apparently groped, subjected to lewd comments, and, in one instance, asked to join an attendee in his bedroom, the men attempted to outdo each other’s bids for lots including ‘an exclusive private night’ at a strip club, plastic surgery to ‘take years off your life or add spice to your wife’, and a combined lot of lunch with the Foreign Secretary and tea with the Governor of the Bank of England. The winning bid for this last lot was reportedly £130,000. The hostesses were asked to dress as though attending a ‘smart, sexy place’ and asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement (“NDA”) relating to the evening.

This insight into the world of the City makes for uncomfortable reading on many levels. The fact that attendees allegedly bid the cost of a family home in some areas of the UK on one lunch and afternoon tea with financial and political elites shows the extent of the gap between rich and poor. Concerns about the event came to light not from the women themselves (who had signed NDAs) but as a result of undercover investigative journalism. Even if NDAs had not been signed, ‘zero hours’ contracts, typically used in corporate hosting assignments, are likely to hinder many women from challenging inappropriate behaviour due to the fear of not being offered future work.

The alleged behaviour of some participants has also exposed the limits of our sexual harassment laws. Section 40(2) of the Equality Act 2010 had made an employer liable for ‘third party harassment’ if someone was harassed by a third party in the course of employment and the employer failed to take such steps as would have been reasonably practicable to prevent the third party from doing so. The protection did have its limits – it did not apply unless the employer knew that the employee had been harassed in the course of employment on at least two other occasions by a third party so would not apply to a ‘one-off’ occasion – but it did not matter whether the third party was the same or a different person on the previous occasions. This protection was repealed in October 2013. The consultation paper preceding the repeal stated that ‘tackling regulations that serve no useful purpose is a key priority for the Government’. Third party harassment provisions were viewed by the Government as ‘a case in point’.

What is deeply ironic about reports of the boorish ‘City boy’ behaviour towards these women is that it has taken place against a backdrop where companies and global actors such as the UN and World Economic Forum appear to be reaching out to women in a range of initiatives for corporate reform. Gender ‘empowerment’ projects proliferate amongst multi-national companies as they are increasingly viewed as important development actors in achieving sustainable development goals, boardroom diversity is highly topical, and training designed to raise awareness of unconscious gender bias is often delivered by companies.[1]

Much like the goal of the Presidents Club charity dinner, these efforts by companies to engage in initiatives apparently designed to foster gender equality appear well-intentioned. In a forthcoming publication[2] I have argued, however, that this current vogue for what the political economist Adrienne Roberts has termed ‘transnational business feminism’ does little to promote gender equality and risks reproducing and valorising established corporate power hierarchies in three main ways:

  1. The dominant ‘business case for diversity’ which underpins much of the current corporate discussion of women (‘They think differently so can bring a different dimension’, ‘They are more in touch with consumers’, ‘They can improve corporate governance and challenge group-think’ etc) does nothing to dismantle the incorrect yet orthodox view that companies exist solely to create value for shareholders. As Charlotte Villiers and I have argued, making ‘the business case’ has led to some progress such as a small increase in the number of women directors, but it privileges those arguments based on financial gain.[3] Shareholders, then, continue to enjoy a privileged position in directors’ decision-making.
  2. Many structural barriers to women’s progress remain in place when business initiatives focus on allowing women in to a traditionally man’s world whether in respect of boardroom appointments or when extending credit to women entrepreneurs in the global south so that they can sell a company’s products. In the case of global gender empowerment projects, the onus appears to be on an individual woman to empower herself out of poverty, detracting attention from the structural causes of economic marginalisation. Moreover, the reductive (and often racialised) portrayal of women in the global south as in need of empowering in contrast to the already ‘empowered’ women of the global north is deeply problematic.
  3. It creates a falsely gendered view of values in which women are stereotypically portrayed as ethical business persons and companies, and the men who lead them (less than 1 in 10 FTSE100 executive directors are women), are represented as inherently masculine and unethical.

The Presidents Club dinner has revealed how reform of the City’s testosterone-fuelled culture is badly needed. Reports of this event suggest that the question we should now be asking ourselves is whether attempts by the City to diversify and transform itself are a just a smoke-screen to mask a problematic culture that is much more deeply rooted than many would like to admit. Once the initial outrage has died down, policy-makers and agenda-setters can use this opportunity to push for more sincere reform of corporate structures, cultures and practices.

[1] R. Russell, ‘How do FTSE100 companies frame gender equality?’ (2017) 12 International and Comparative Corporate Law Journal 80.
[2] R. Russell, ‘The uneasy relationship between corporations and gender equality: A critique of the ‘Transnational Business Feminism’ project’ in B. Sjåfjell and I. Lynch Fannon (eds) Creating Corporate Sustainability: Gender as an Agent for Change (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2018).
[3] R. Russell and C. Villiers, ‘Gender Justice in Financial Markets’ in L. Herzog (ed) Just Financial Markets?: Finance in a Just Society (Oxford University Press, 2017).

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