How The Presidents Club’s Sexual Harassment Problem Was Busted Wide Open By 2 Women

The Financial Times published an explosive article on Tuesday detailing systemic, widespread sexual harassment at a decades-old U.K. fundraising organization called Presidents Club Charitable Trust. The FT sent two undercover female journalists to expose the male-only charity club, and they discovered rampant sexual harassment at the charity's annual gala. Less than 24 hours after the report was published, the foundation announced that it will be shutting down.

The President's Club Charitable Trust has raised over $28 million over the course of three decades for charities that help underprivileged children, including a world-renowned children's hospital in London. The organization's flagship event is the annual President's Club Charity Dinner, a secretive, closed-door event that features auctions for high-value items, such as lunch with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. It's attended by prominent figures in U.K. politics, business, finance and entertainment — and other than hostesses, only men are allowed to attend.

The FT sent reporter Madison Marriage and another woman, who has not been named, to infiltrate the event posing as hostesses. According to Marriage's report, she and her fellow hostesses were routinely subject to sexual harassment and, in some cases, sexual assault by the men in attendance. What's more, several details in Marriage's report strongly suggest that the event's management was fully aware of this sexual harassment and, to an extent, implicitly encouraged it.

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Hostesses at the event were "subjected to groping, lewd comments and repeated requests to join diners in bedrooms elsewhere" in the hotel at which the dinner took place, according to Marriage. Several hostesses said that men repeatedly reached up their skirts, and one reported that man exposed his penis to her during the event.

Some of the men in attendance insisted that hostesses stand next to their tables and hold their hands, Marriage reported. One hostess, who later said that the event was "f*cking scary," said that a guest asked her if she was a prostitute, while another reported that a guest lunged at her for a kiss.

"It was hands up skirts, hands on bums but also hands on hips, hands on stomachs, arms going around your waist unexpectedly," Marriage said on the BBC's Newsnight program. "The worst [story] I was told by one of the hostesses was a man taking his penis out during the course of the dinner. The other one was another man telling a hostess to down her glass of champagne, rip off her knickers and dance on the table."

Attendees were given a brochure before entering the event warning that the organizers "will not tolerate any form of harassment toward event attendees or staff." However, the manner in which the hostesses were treated by the management and organizers suggests that this was not a sincere warning.

Caroline Dandridge, the head of a U.K. talent agency, ran the hiring process for hostesses. She told applicants during the interview process that the men in attendance might be "annoying," ad advised one prospective hostess not to tell her boyfriend that it was a men's-only event. Hostesses' romantic partners, Dandridge made clear, were not welcome at the venue.

“It’s a Marmite job," Dandridge reportedly said, a reference to the notoriously polarizing food product. "Some girls love it, and for other girls it’s the worst job of their life and they will never do it again...You just have to put up with the annoying men and if you can do that it’s fine."

A strict dress code was imposed: Hostesses were told to wear black shoes and black underwear, and to style their hair and makeup as if they were going to a "smart sexy place," according to Marriage. Once at the venue, they were provided with dresses and belts; they were also forced to sign a five-page nondisclosure agreement that, Marriage reported, they were not given time to read. Hostesses cell phones were locked away for the evening, and event staff was on-call to make sure that hostesses didn't spend too much time in the bathroom or on the sidelines.

The fallout from FT's expose was swift and severe. The President's Club announced Wednesday that it will disband after distributing its remaining funds. David Meller, an official at the Department of Education who helped organize the event, resigned from the U.K. government, and charities vowed to return donations they'd received from the organization.

The dinner that Marriage and her associate infiltrated raised over $2.8 million dollars. The hostesses who worked the event were paid about $213 each.