The Queenager: Eleanor's Letter (April 30th 2023)

Queenagers are a pioneering cohort we've been working for 30 years, but the CBI scandal shows that business at the top is still a boys club.

Dear Queenagers

By the time you read this I will be in Marrakesh or probably half way between the city and the mountains where I’m leading our first Noon Tour. We’re trekking for five days, led by a Queenager Berber guide (the first one in Morocco) I’ve been packing today – water purification tablets, hiking boots, thermals and floaty dresses (it’s 40 degrees today in Marrakesh but can get cold at altitude). It feels like the kind of adventure I haven’t been on since I went back-packing around India, Indonesia and Central America in my twenties. Yippee for the Queenager years!

I also got a flash back this week to some of the not-so-great aspects of my twenties; the way the world of work was in the 1990s. You remember the kind of thing – casual groping, endless sexual innuendo, comments about your sex life (it was none of their business). There was no point in moaning about it. Not being ‘miss-ish’ or a ‘prim’ or ‘un-fun’ was a pre-requisite to being allowed in the room with the big beast men, where the decisions were made. The sexist ‘jokes’ of the – ‘while you’re down there love…’ – variety were just the water in which we swam. Not making a fuss was the price of entry. It was grim, but it was the reality if you wanted to get on. We just tried to ignore it (and learnt who wasn’t safe in taxis…) Perhaps naively I thought things were better now, that my daughters would enter a world where senior men had learnt the lessons of #metoo and Harvey Weinstein; and knew better than to treat female employees inappropriately.

Well, seems I was wrong. The unfolding scandal at the CBI (not to mention the horrors uncovered by Louise Casey’s report into the Metropolitan Police – she found it to be institutionally sexist, racist and homophobic) suggests the world of work is not nearly as woke as we’d like it to be (or certain aspects of the mainstream media insist that it is).  For those of you who haven’t clocked what has been going on at the CBI let me fill you in. Its chief Tony Danker was fired for being inappropriate (read handsy and worse) to female staff, just as a grim scandal involving rape and sexual harassment at the group going back years…(not on Danker’s watch) also emerged. Over the last fortnight half the FTSE 100 have cut their ties to what was, till a few weeks ago, the pre-eminent face and supposed guardian of standards (hah!) of UK PLC. With some of the few companies led by Queenagers (there are only nine female FTSE CEOs including those at Aviva, Nat West) leading the exodus.

I have to say that it has always been an open secret that the higher you go in business the more of a boys’ club it is. I’ve interviewed and chatted to enough senior women about this not to be surprised by ongoing bad boardroom behaviour. Tales of women on boards being excluded from the insiders’ Whatsapp groups where all the decisions were made, of trips to stripclubs, or ‘ladies of the night’ being imported after dinners… of a kind of ‘droit de seigneur’ mentality prevailing, were all too common. Particularly in the banking and tech sectors – a Bro-culture hot spot. Did you know that 50% of women who work in the tech sector leave when they have a baby – in 2023?

One very senior woman executive told me just last month that the kind of antics that more junior managers wouldn’t dream of indulging in were still very much in evidence in the higher echelons: “it’s the last redoubt of the worst-kind of dinosaurs” she said, rolling her eyes. Another told me how she’d been brought in to deal with the chaos left by a shagging boss who trailed sexual harassment cases in his wake – all hushed up of course with Non Disclosure Agreements and pay-offs. This is by no means an isolated incident. When the rape stories started to emerge from the CBI they played by usual business rules and covered it up. As its former President admitted on Sky News last week: “the most grievous error was trying to find resolution [ie paying people off and hushing it up] in sexual harassment cases when we should have removed those offenders from our business.” Yes, they should. I hope that more companies now will realise that leaving handsy offenders to go on groping employees is an existential reputational risk. That just because a bloke is a ‘rock star’ or a ‘deal maker’ or deemed essential to the success of the business, that shouldn’t give him a free pass for bad behaviour. That in future, women who complain will be believed and action will be taken. (I wouldn’t bet on it though. Currently in the Metropolitan Police area the conviction rate for rape is less than one per cent – a policewoman said when the Casey report was released, that the prosecution rate was so low that rape had de-facto been made legal in London. )

This isn’t all men, of course. There are lots of good ones who I know feel as despairing as I do when they read about this stuff. One very senior good man I know – who is famous within his organisation for promoting and championing women, explained why he had that reputation: “It’s not rocket science: I just don’t hit on women, I  respect their intelligence and give them good projects. I was brought up by a working mum and have several high-powered older sisters. I know how to behave.” But we need the good men to call out the behaviour of the bad: all it takes for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing.

I’ve spent the last thirty years calling for more gender equity and more women at the top. I’m very proud to have just joined the steering committee of the 30 Per Cent Club, the biggest global campaign for gender equality. Its new chair Hanneke Smits, the CEO of BNY Mellon Investment Management, wrote a great letter to the FT on Friday about the scandal at the CBI.  

She said (for those of you who can’t get through its paywall): “Corporate culture is often said to be defined by the worst act you allow to take place in your organisation. What is alleged to have taken place at the CBI exposes the very real human cost of failure…Our thoughts are with the women who have been victimised and we stand with them in solidarity. Our fear at the 30% Club is that the failings currently under investigation are not limited to the CBI. Last year, Randstad reported that 72 per cent of women working in technology, healthcare, education and construction said they had either encountered or witnessed inappropriate behaviour from male colleagues at work. And analysis by the Scottish TUC reported that 85 per cent of women said that their reporting and experience of sexual harassment in the workplace was not taken seriously and dealt with appropriately. What is alleged to have happened at the CBI is indicative of this very issue. A toxic workplace culture is a significant factor in the continued under-representation of women in business leadership We may be close to 40 per cent women on boards across the FTSE 100, but there are just nine female chief executives. We need greater representation of women at the top. Women and quite frankly everyone should be safe at work.”

I suppose it is a sign of progress that the CBI has fallen and this is being called out…. When we Queenagers joined the work place we were told we had equality because we were allowed in the room. It wasn’t true. Just because we’d been given a lanyard didn’t mean that the world of work, which had been designed by and for men, was an equal place for women. We were allowed in, on sufferance, to a man’s world.

In the past three decades we have seen progress – the kind of egregious sexism and harassment that was commonplace is now rightly seen as offensive. Younger generations won’t stand for it – and good for them. But the problem with misogyny is that it mutates.

you see, it’s not just the old dinosaurs who should know better who do this; tech bro culture is just as bad. A new generation of men, bred on violent porn online, have learned to say the right things on the surface but behave just as badly underneath. Champions of vile misogyny like Andrew Tait or the Incel movement have huge followings. We have to keep combatting the old hatred in all its new forms.

I was reminded of both how far we have come and how far there is to go at the Defence Women’s Network Conference where I spoke this week; one of the women on my amazing Queenager panel said that she’d been so terrified she would never be ‘let back in the room once I was a mother’ that she returned to work three weeks after she’d had a baby. Another said that even now, in 2023, she was regularly the “only woman in top level meetings – the defence world is about 15 years behind the rest of industry”.

Yet I was so impressed by the women I met and their commitment for change in this true bastion of male power; change happens slowly – and it goes backwards if we don’t keep pushing.

So well done Hanneke for calling out the dinosaurs – I am glad that the old gits at the CBI have got their comeuppance. But it is depressing that in 2023 this is still going on. Women have been entering the workforce in the same numbers as men now for thirty years – yet we are a long way away from 50:50 balance at the top. When I interviewed Hanneke for the Telegraph recently she said she thought true equality would take another century… and then there are all the intersections of disadvantage. Black women face far higher levels of burn-out, more harassment and microaggressions. Class is still a huge factor in who gets promoted. This can’t be just a vanilla sisters conversation; it has to be truly inclusive.

Still – hope springs eternal. Let’s hope the demise of the CBI, the huge kick to its business model serves as a lesson – and a warning – to those who might feel that their power lets them act with impunity to those with less privilege.

I’d love to know what you all think – and to hear some of your experiences. Are things better? Is it still the same? Is it a boys club at the top?

You can respond in the comments or email me direct I’ll pick this up again when I am back from Morocco. Over and out!




Ps Some of you have been asking about the Noon Book Club. Well I am happy to announce that it is going to make a glorious return, with free books for all Paid Subscribers, supported by the publisher HarperCollins – our next one will be in June and there will be details of the book, author, time of the event (I chat to the author and you can all ask your questions) in this newsletter next week. We’ll be asking you to send us your addresses again for GDPR reasons. So watch this space. More info on my return from Morocco.

By Eleanor Mills

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