Legal

Are single-sex networking events the ‘new’ old boys’ club?

1 Feb 2018 By Emma Ahmed

Following the alleged harassment of female hostesses at a Presidents Club dinner, Emma Ahmed explores the legal ramifications

The Financial Times' exposé on the Presidents Club dinner raises questions about the extent to which our laws prohibit such single-sex events, and the potential legal implications for those organising and attending the event. However, perhaps the bigger underlying question is whether such single-sex events are leading to continued gender inequality.

The Presidents Club charitable trust hands out more than £2m each year to good causes. The annual dinner, which has an exclusively male guest list, has been the club’s flagship fundraising event for 33 years. The exposé reported that sexual harassment and groping of female hostesses was a major problem at the event. 

The Equality Act 2010 contains exemptions that allow charities to restrict the services they offer to people of a particular sex (eg women’s refuges) and associations to restrict their membership to a single sex (eg golf clubs). However, it’s far from clear whether either of these exemptions apply here. In particular, it’s not clear if the Presidents Club is a single-sex members’ club, and the men attending the dinner did so as benefactors not beneficiaries. 

What legal protection are the hostesses entitled to?

Disappointingly, employment law offers little protection against the harassment the hostesses suffered. Previously, employers could be liable for harassment perpetrated by third parties, such as the attendees at the dinner, if they did not do enough to prevent it. However, the relevant provision was repealed in 2013 by the coalition government. This means it will be very difficult for any hostess who suffered from harassment to bring a claim against their employing agency. Proving harassment by a third party is not enough; they would need to prove that the agency failed to protect them from the alleged harassment for a reason related to their sex.

The agency allegedly told its female hostesses to wear sexy black outfits, with matching underwear and high heels – an instruction that is arguably sex discrimination. The issue of inappropriate dress codes was the subject of a 2017 joint parliamentary committee report and the government had promised that new guidance would be published in summer 2017, but this has not yet materialised.

The hostesses may also be able to pursue the culprits, or their employers, under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (under which employers can be vicariously liable for acts of harassment committed by their employees). Police action is another option if a physical assault or sexual groping has taken place. If convicted, this could lead to the culprit being forced to register as a sex offender. 

Are single-sex business networking events problematic?

A lot depends on the context. Some single-sex business networking events targeted at women are designed to tackle the underlying discrimination women face. They give female executives an opportunity to make connections and perhaps gain a more senior female mentor who can offer advice and support. 

However, there is a real danger that single-sex events such as the Presidents Club dinner are a part of a ‘new’ old boys’ club, in which business is being done, and networking is taking place, in a male-only environment. This single-sex environment excludes female executives and creates an uneven playing field on which much of the business is done behind closed doors between like-minded men.

This in turn restricts female executives from rising to the top and challenging the status quo. If networks and client relationships are forged in this type of environment, it is difficult to see how women can ever become properly established at a senior level. This is almost certainly one of the underlying causes of the gender pay gap and is a far harder issue to tackle than what happened at the fundraising dinner.

Emma Ahmed is a professional support lawyer in the employment team at Hill Dickinson

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