How the City's freezing out of women runs deeper than Garrick Club feud

While attention is focused on the hub for legal and media elites, it would be foolish to ignore the rife sexism of professionals at leisure

Membership of the men-only Garrick Club has become questionable for some at the top of the British Establishment. Getty
Powered by automated translation
An embedded image that relates to this article

In the West End of London, clubland is in turmoil. Fear and loathing stalks the denizens of St James’s, Mayfair and Covent Garden.

In the east, in the Square Mile and Canary Wharf, the bankers, City lawyers, accountants and Lloyd’s insurers are smiling to themselves.

Usually, they’re the ones who are accused of sexism and elitism. Not this time. The membership list of the illustrious Garrick Club has fallen into the hands of The Guardian, which has taken great delight in highlighting some of the more prominent members of that all-male preserve – while conveniently ignoring the fact that its esteemed former editor, Alan Rusbridger, was for many years a member.

High-profile resignations from the club have followed, including the head of MI6, Sir Richard Moore, civil service chief Simon Case and chairman of the UK Statistics Authority Sir Robert Chote. Four senior judges have followed suit. There will be more.

It was no secret among the higher reaches of the media, Westminster, Whitehall and the judiciary that these and other folk were entitled to wear the Garrick’s famous salmon and cucumber tie. Now, everyone knows.

Senior politicians, journalists, barristers, actors, civil servants – they all clamoured to join the exclusive Covent Garden establishment.

They were aware, of course, that the membership was men-only. For some that was the appeal; for others there was the belief that it was only a matter of when before the barrier came down.

More recently, the pressure for change had increased, fuelled by growing discomfort against a backdrop of woke and anger from women campaigners. Still, the last occasion it voted, the Garrick chose to stick with its time-honoured rule.

It’s not the only one. White’s, Travellers, Brooks's, Boodles, Pratt’s, Beefsteak, Savile – they all bar female members. Now the worry is that what began with the Garrick will spread, that other clubs will be targeted – either for being single-sex or for their lack of diversity, or both.

What’s noticeable, though, is the lack of heavyweight City involvement. The rainmakers tend not to be members of such clubs. Some are, but by and large they stay away.

There are clubs in the City but they’re not major draws. Likewise, the livery societies are well-populated but there are few heavy-hitters on their rolls. Same with the Freemasons – they are for others.

Among the leading banks, City law firms, accountants and insurers, membership of clubs and societies, especially the single-sex variety, is largely frowned upon. HR departments, equality campaigners and, more to the point, female colleagues won’t stand for it.

Clubs, even though they profess to be private, can be far too visible. The City’s male bosses prefer to mix and network invisibly, well away from prying protesters and newspapers.

Their club equivalents are closer, tightly drawn, informal, less structured. They’re invitation-only shooting parties, fly-fishing trips to the salmon rivers of Scotland and Iceland, golf weeks in Spain and Ireland, sailing off the Isle of Wight, ski-ing weekends, cricket and rugby tours.

They used to pack boxes at Lord’s, Twickenham and Wembley, but these days receipt of this sort of hospitality has to be registered. Guest lists comprising just men are frowned upon and may even lead to complaints from female staff.

Better to keep it to a narrow circle and well away from nosy folk. After all, it’s just friends meeting up and where is the harm in that?

If the company must be mixed, then the Chelsea Flower Show Gala Night, Wimbledon and Queen’s, Royal Ascot and Glyndebourne are favourites.

Those are the to-die-for invites, the ones that say they’ve made it or that the young City buck is rising up the career ladder.

While attention is rightly focused on the Garrick, it would be foolish to ignore what is less obvious. In many ways, the latter form of bonding can be even more insidious.

Women are shut out, it’s “boys having fun”. As girls, they were never taught or encouraged to shoot, fish, play golf, cricket, rugby or football. Today, such opportunities do exist but they’re still activities that are dominated by men.

It occurs subliminally. One City firm sponsored an army veterans’ charity. The dinners and sponsor get-togethers were invariably all male affairs.

The women in the office complained that they were frozen out, unable to socialise with their men chiefs. The latter realised the error of their ways and booked tables for the women at a fund-raising lunch for another charity in London’s Park Lane.

It has echoes of the Presidents Club, the all-male, black tie dinner attended by hostesses for property industry titans – and exposed by the Financial Times. That caused profound angst across the sector and, as with the Garrick backlash, prompted hasty resignations from the dining society and convoluted denials of involvement.

It would be wrong to suppose attitudes have altered. Lessons were learnt all right, which were to drive the blokes deeper underground.

By all means, harangue and picket the Garrick Club. But equally, challenge the men in charge (and it is, even now, mostly men) as to where they’re going, who they’re asking.

They may scream it’s an invasion of their privacy. However, that’s precisely the issue: it’s private and merits laying bare. Without it, nothing will change.

Published: March 26, 2024, 4:52 PM