The FT exposé of the Presidents Club charity dinner has been FT.com's most popular read ever. It looks like a watershed moment for a certain type of corporate behaviour, and one that might reframe our expectations for certain corporate learning; not least diversity, ethics, talent and equality.
For some the story was the perfect sting: revealing a hidden ugly side of powerful men in business. Others, especially in the letters pages, railed against ‘political correctness gone mad’ and declared that a story about rich powerful businessmen acting lewdly towards unsuspecting waitresses was hardly newsworthy, especially from the FT.
But this is precisely the point. The revelations were not a surprise. It was the normality of the situation that was at issue. ‘Anger is a powerful tool for change,’ wrote Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI, and the exposé screams enough is enough.
If women in business are to be fully and fairly integrated into senior decision-making positions – which few doubt would be good for the economy – then negative behaviour associated with a male-dominated environment must also change. The explosions of anger and dismay are signs of that change; the ground just shifted faster than the event's organisers might have anticipated.
Moreover, it is entirely appropriate that female correspondents at the FT – who help set the agenda for global business yet contend with its misogyny – should lead the charge. From corporate entertaining at strip clubs, to casual sexualised comments in the office, to mansplaining in meetings, the red lines have been drawn. This is what change looks like.
Perhaps most remarkable of all is how easily the testosterone-fuelled event folded at the first assault. A female FT business correspondent marched into a bastion of brazen male privilege and blew it apart. There were some protestations about it being a private party (true only in the narrowest sense), or that it was all for charity (a highly dubious proposition), or that scantily-dressed hostesses are a time-honoured way to get men to raise their donations and women in the same position would act no differently.
But there was no serious defence on any issue of principle. Instead, and with astonishing speed, the ‘masters of the universe’ mumbled a few excuses and closed the organisation down for good.
Paul Lewis is editorial director of the Financial Times | IE Business School Corporate Learning Alliance