During the summer of 1980, I travelled across America with three friends, Ruth, Chris and Richard. White, middle class, part way through our university educations, we appeared to enjoy similarly sunny prospects in life. We funded our travels, as we also subsidised our studies, by taking work in the so-called hospitality industry. Back in Brighton, Ruth and I worked weekends in the laundry room of a hotel and some evenings as barmaids in local pubs (which was relatively civilised) and at conferences (which was not). I preferred the laundry room, despite poor pay and early starts. We got breakfast in the staff canteen and never had to mingle with guests, though we spent our shifts steaming the evidence of mingling from the sheets.
In Colorado, all four of us were taken on by a burger restaurant, Chris and Richard as busboys, paid more per hour than Ruth and I earned as wait staff. I thought about that restaurant as I read Madison Marriage’s piece in the Financial Times about the men-only Presidents Club charity dinner at London’s Dorchester hotel last week—and some of the muddled responses to the piece. In particular, the idea that the women working as hostesses at the event had consented to everything that happened—and could have left when they realised they may well be pawed and propositioned—is getting a lot of play on social media. This argument is as flawed as the notion that women ‘choose’ to be paid less than men, and it’s interlinked. What the FT revealed is the world of what Theresa May might call ‘boy jobs and girl jobs’.
Boy jobs often have uniforms: suits and ties or in supposedly progressive fields, chinos and sweatshirts. Boy jobs grant men access to rooms where the only women there occupy subservient roles—and this is so prevalent that the men often fail to notice the discrepancy. Girl jobs have uniforms too. At the Presidents Club jamboree, women were required to don skimpy black dresses, matching underwear and high heels. At the Colorado restaurant, waitresses were expected to wear t-shirts bearing the slogan ‘liquor in the front, poker in the rear’.
Customers interpreted our t-shirts as an invitation. I ended up dumping a plate of onion rings in someone’s lap. You might say that this shows I had a choice: I withdrew my ‘consent’. Before that incident I had already persuaded management to let me wear a dress rather than the t-shirt. But with other wait staff wearing the t-shirt, male customers felt entitled to grope.
Could my female friend and I have chosen not to work at the restaurant? Yes. We had more choices than many women. We were privileged, students with other options and resources. But we wanted to travel around the US. We wanted to have the same opportunity as our male friends, but we didn’t. The barriers to our ambitions were different. The jobs were different. The pay was different. The choices open to us were different.
That was almost four decades ago and so much has changed in the world, but nothing has changed about those facts. The myth of choice is still just that, up there with the idea that women just need to be a little more robust in dealing with harassment. (Guess who got thrown out of the restaurant after the onion rings incident? Right. Not the customer. Guess who was threatened with the police? Right, me. Guess who lost her poxy job. Yep.)
So all hail the Financial Times and Madison Marriage for revealing these dynamics in all their horrible clarity and holding a mirror up to the influential business people and politicians that are among its core readers. Those business people and politicians have by-and-large signed up to the importance of gender equality, not only as a matter of social justice but also of self interest. Institutions perform better if they avail of all the talents, rather than excluding women.
So what were those business people and politicians thinking, attending an event that barred their female colleagues and allowed women inside only in explicitly subservient roles? I’d like to hear from them, and from their boards and their parties. David Meller, co-chairman of the Presidents Club Trust, has already stepped down as a non-executive board member of the Department for Education.
That the evening raised money for charity does not make it all right. I’d like to know what David Walliams has to say—and by the way, his fee for compering the evening should go to a charity combating violence against women and girls. And what of Artista, the company that recruited the women and in requiring them to sign non-disclosure agreements demonstrated whose protection came first?
As for the bigger question of what comes next, this story fits in the continuum of stories unleashed by the Harvey Weinstein scandal and like the rest of the #MeToo canon underlines the fact that harassment remains endemic and systematic—at black-tie events, in Westminster and Hollywood, and in workplaces and social spaces around the country.
Ending the exploitation and harassment of women requires us to address the structural imbalances which allow it to continue unchecked. In 2015, I co-founded the Women’s Equality Party because it will never be enough to refuse to wear an offensive t-shirt or remove a hand from the knee or fight to be paid and promoted equally. Only by dismantling the culture of ‘boy jobs and girl jobs’ will we build a society in which all can thrive.
Catherine Mayer is the co-founder and President of the Women’s Equality Party and the author of Attack of the 50 Ft Women: How Gender Equality Can Save the World.