Discrimination: Sexism in the City

Along with an explosion in low-cost European flights and a proliferation in buy-to-let properties, it would seem the past decade has also witnessed an increase in the number of lap dancing clubs opening for business.

Since the opening of the first UK lap dance club in 1995, more than 300 such establishments now operate throughout the country, according to women’s rights charity the Fawcett Society. And this trend, it says, has had a profound impact on the corporate world with a visit to a lap dance club now being “an increasingly normal way for companies to entertain clients”.

Campaigns officer Kat Banyard believes this development has contributed to a damaging culture of sexual objectification of women in the workplace, especially in London’s financial district, the City, where she says female workers already experience worrying levels of sexual harassment and discrimination.

“Male colleagues are sending out a stark message – that they see women as sexual objects,” she said. “We are asking people to take stock and reassess the practice of using lap dance clubs for client entertaining. It puts women in an uncomfortable position and means they are missing out on networking opportunities when they choose not to go along.”

The report’s findings

The extent of feeling on this issue was unveiled in a report published by the Fawcett Society last month entitled Sexism in the City, which surveyed more than 1,000 adults.

The study found 60% of women would be uncomfortable working for an organisation that allows its employees to use lap dancing venues for entertaining clients. Half of the men (48%) and four in 10 of the women (41%) said it was unacceptable for businesses to use lap dance clubs as venues for entertaining clients.

In response to these findings, Fawcett is calling for lap dance clubs to be licensed as sex encounter establishments – as sex shops currently are – instead of their current status as licensed premises, which puts them on a par with pubs and ordinary clubs. This move, it says, would enable local authorities to place greater restrictions on lap dancing clubs.

Banyard would also like to see employers take a stand against the use of lap dancing clubs by their employees. “Companies shouldn’t stop at simply having a sexual discrimination policy. They should be explicit about what is and isn’t acceptable,” she added.

Although there is an example from the US, where the exclusion of a female worker from client outings to strip clubs was cited in a sex discrimination lawsuit, instances of this happening in the UK are hard to unearth.

Employment solicitor Samantha Mangwana at Russell Jones & Walker says this is because firms faced with such accusations are keen to settle out of court. She says companies could face sexual harassment claims if female employees are obliged to go to lap dancing clubs against their will. Employers are also in danger of tribunals finding sexual discrimination, according to Mangwana, if it can be proved employees, male or female, are missing out on advancing their career if they choose not to attend.

Sexual harassment

At law firm Dundas and Wilson, partner Robert Davies says firms must be wary of employees who on their return to the office from a lap dancing club overtly describe in graphic detail what they saw. This, he says, could “create an intimidating, degrading, humiliating and offensive environment” and “violate the dignity of fellow employees” – both definitions of sexual harassment in the workplace.

But instances of corporate visits to lap dance clubs are most likely to play a part in sex discrimination claims when they are used alongside a number of examples to illustrate a culture of sexism in the workplace, according to Judith Watson, head of employment at law firm Cobbetts.

“If a female employee is trying to show she has been the victim of sexual discrimination, she could use the example of lap dancing clubs to paint a picture of the environment she has been working in,” said Watson.

When approached for their perspective, perhaps understandably, few senior HR practitioners were willing to speak on this topic.

At City-based asset management company Threadneedle, HR director Richard Fuller went as far as to say it was an issue that had not arisen in his organisation.

“But I’m not sure it’s the kind of practice any reputable company would like to see happening with its employees,” he added.

One female HR director working at a financial services firm based in London agreed to speak anonymously. She admitted she didn’t have a policy in this area and although she said client outings to strip clubs didn’t happen all the time, trips to lap dancing clubs and the like are “taken almost as a given after big events”.

She said: “Where we meet clients at meetings or events some people will go on to Stringfellows and similar clubs. It’s widely accepted in our industry, which is predominantly made up of men.

“The females who are exposed to this in our firm have no problem with this. This is not the only form of client entertaining we do. We have a wide range of different activities that appeal to different clients.”

Non-threatening situations

The HR director said as a reputable employer her team go “out of their way” to ensure staff aren’t exposed to situations they find intimidating. She recalled one incident about a year ago where some male members of staff had complained they had felt pressurised by a senior employee who wanted to take them to a lap dancing club while they were away on a business trip and it caused “a few problems”.

But it seems the risks companies face when their employees combine a visit to a lap dancing club with client entertaining is a fairly new issue that hasn’t registered on the HR radar as yet. As the HR director put it: “To be honest I have never thought about it and perhaps it is something I should give some thought to and be more aware of.”

This point is picked up by Diane Worman, an adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). She said the topic could be compared with recent thinking around protecting staff at company parties where people have had too much to drink and some employees may be exposed to unacceptable behaviour.

She said: “HR policies are a reflection of the trends in society and the increase in lap dancing clubs is a fairly new phenomenon. HR directors need to keep up with the times and assess the risk and unintended consequences of new trends.

“So far a clear line hasn’t been drawn in this area. Perhaps it will take a high-profile case or claim to focus employers’ minds and for them to think through where they stand on the issue,” she added.

Main findings of the sexism in the city report

The Fawcett Society’s Sexism in the City report contains a number of findings that it says show that “behind the conspicuous wealth of the City lies a hidden story of disadvantage and discrimination affecting women at all levels of business”.

They include:

  • Only 11% of FTSE 100 company directors are women
  • Only 26% of civil service top management are women
  • 30,000 women lose their jobs every year in the UK simply for being pregnant
  • Two-thirds of low paid workers are women
  • Women working full-time are paid on average 17% less than men
  • In 2005, 18% of sex discrimination compensation awards were for sexual harassment
  • Women’s employment is concentrated in the five ‘Cs – caring, cleaning, catering, clerical work and cashiering – and is valued less than traditional ‘men’s work’. The average annual pay of a mechanic is £17,700 that of a childcarer is £13,900
  • UK full-time employees work the longest hours in the EU. Women, as the primary carers, can’t compete in a workplace where performance is judged according to hours put in, not quality of work produced.
  • Traditional ‘women’s work’ is undervalued: women’s employment
  • Nearly one in five women who work in London are at risk of poverty because they earn less than the London living wage.

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