Private real estate must get the point about gender discrimination

Fear of losing money, warnings to be on best behavior or considering skipping events are misguided reactions to the events at the President’s Club charity dinner.

The scandal emanating from last month’s President’s Club charity dinner at London’s Dorchester Hotel, at which approximately half of the sponsors and attendees were either from or invited by property companies, is still being digested by the industry.

The Financial Times’ exposé has reminded the sector of a darker time when male senior executives presided over an environment of gender discrimination, misogyny and harassment; a time when the objectification of women was nigh-on institutional.

According to the FT, the men-only event was attended by 360 figures from the worlds of British politics, entertainment and business. Of those at the black-tie meal, auction and after-party reception, around 150 were either property professionals or guests of property companies, while 10 of the 21 tables were sponsored by property companies. And institutional property investment firms and individuals could be counted among the contingent.

Guests were attended to by 130 specially hired hostesses required to wear “skimpy black outfits, matching underwear and high heels,” the FT reported. “Welcome to the most un-PC event of the year,” roared Jonny Gould, a sports television presenter who opened proceedings, the business paper added. Things went downhill from there with allegations that “hostesses were subjected to groping, lewd comments and repeated requests to join diners in bedrooms elsewhere in the Dorchester.”

Given its proportional representation, the property industry is rightly feeling the backlash now that the six-hour shenanigans at the Dorchester have been exposed. In the aftermath, reformation, or in some cases, formation, of policy is now the name of the game. “Given the allegations surrounding the recent President’s Club dinner, Frogmore will be more diligent in screening the events we are invited to attend,” said the London-based private equity real estate firm, which sponsored a table. Meanwhile, another London-based private equity real estate firm told sister publication PERE it would evaluate introducing a policy with regard to attending male-only events.

All eyes are now turning to next month’s annual property jamboree MIPIM. The Cannes event has long been associated with its lavish party scene – its actual conference program something of an afterthought – and anecdotes of similar behavior on its fringes are easy to encounter. Unsurprisingly, MIPIM’s organizers are keen to impress how they will “take action” if informed of untoward actions by delegates and will “increase communications” to attendees about their code of conduct.

However, in PERE’s conversations about the event in the past week, one senior executive of a global real estate investment management business said he was considering not attending MIPIM following the scandal. Another, who was invited to the President’s Club but did not attend, reflected on the decision as akin to dodging a bullet.

One unavoidable outcome to such a scandal is reputational damage by association. Fear of financial repercussions among investment managers will also have set in after Ivanhoé Cambridge, the property arm of Canadian investor La Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, confirmed it would stop future investments with London-based residential operating partner Residential Land, whose founder Bruce Ritchie was one of the President’s Club trustees.

But fear of losing money, warnings to be on your best behavior or considering skipping events are misguided reactions; they miss the most important issue here: that such behavior is inherently wrong, offensive and disrespectful to females, particularly those with whom they work side by side in the industry. With the President’s Club now disbanded and the exposé of its now-final event, firms should hopefully be provoked into reassessing their behavior and making greater efforts to clean up their acts. Moving policies forward is low-hanging fruit but an obvious start. The real triumph will be when the attitudes prevalent that night are simply considered alien.