I used to work in the city as a financial journalist and headhunter. I encountered sexual harassment on a daily basis. I was chatted up, whistled at and even had flowers sent to my office containing suggestive notes. I found the city a grossly unfair place to work. It was so skewed in my favour. While I was wined and dined by senior management, my male colleagues were filing and fact-checking. I freely admit I welcomed the attention, for while the men were losing their heads, I was getting what I wanted.
I wasn’t much cop as a financial journalist. The city wasn’t a world I really belonged in. I knew nothing. I thought accelerated depreciation meant you were ageing abnormally quickly. I was more at home in the King’s Road and Harvey Nichols. But as a young woman trying to break into the fiercely competitive world of journalism, I had to start somewhere. In fact the only scoop I ever got was solely down to the fact that a young American merchant banker wanted to sleep with me. I didn’t fancy him, but found it very useful when, drunk in a nightclub, he spilled the beans about his bosses leaving CSFB to set up what would become one of Russia’s biggest financial enterprises. He gave me this information because he thought it would help him get me into bed. I didn’t find his approach offensive and never thought about suing, despite the fact that he came up with some pretty crass chat-up lines. I was just delighted to have my first cover story.
When I left financial journalism to become a city headhunter I had to use everything I had to get anywhere. Everyone knows headhunting is a tough game. But it’s a little less tough if you wear a short skirt.
The idea that the City of London is a place where your looks or your sex don’t count is absurd. I know a number of women who are fully aware that their prize asset is how they look. This enables them to get into places their males colleagues cannot. The trick, as every smart girl knows, is to leverage these advantages. One woman I know worked as a successful seller of bonds. Not only did she make good bonuses, she also married one of the bank’s richest traders. Where better to meet a rich husband than the next-door desk? Now instead of trudging into the city every day, she drives around Chelsea in a four-wheel drive. She needs such a big car to collect her daily purchases. She understood the game.
Her brother joined a rival firm a couple of years later. He was fairly successful and enjoyed a number of good years with good bonuses. However, when he realised that he was not going to make it to the top, rather than suing the bank for ignoring him, he took the redundancy on offer and turned himself into a property dealer. Five years later, he has a healthy portfolio of London properties and can even afford to buy his sister lunch.
A close friend of mine from university who shall remain nameless but has become a legend in the city slept with her boss and then took his job. She could have taught these suing ninnies a thing or two.
I can’t understand these women. Surely they knew where they were going to work when they accepted a job in a merchant bank? It’s not Laura Ashley for heaven’s sake. The city is dominated by men, like it or not. It always has been, and probably always will be. So what? That is just the way it is. It’s not called Goldman Sachs for nothing. If they were so keen to work in a politically correct environment then why not go and work for Greenpeace? Maybe because they like earning lots of money and jetting around the world making deals. What they don’t like it not getting promoted fast enough.
This isn’t a feminist complaint by the Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein (DKW) women. It’s the whining of a number of people who have been passed over but who happen to be female. Yes, the city’s a tough place, with stress, harassment and petty jealousies. Men also have to endure comments on their hairstyles or lack of them, the cut of their suits or their choice of football clubs. They can either put up with it or leave.
But these are obviously women who just don’t cut the mustard. All this talk of hitting glass ceilings is absurd. The only ceilings these women have hit are due to their limited talent for the job. According to a female friend of mine who is a partner in one of the City’s most prestigious banks it is always the second rate types who sue. She calls them “the whingers”.
Whingers is right. I mean how can you possibly, like Katherine Smith, sue someone because they said the men in the office would have their “hands in her box”, in reference to a box of sweets on her desk. A better response would have been to smile serenely and say he couldn’t afford it.
Smith also complained that she was referred to as the Pamela Anderson of trading. Call me old-fashioned, but isn’t being compared to a sex symbol a good thing. I can understand that you’d be pissed off if you were referred to as the Roseanne Barr of trading, but please, spare me. This is just an excuse to win a court case, which, for what it’s worth, the bank probably won’t fight as in the words of another merchant banker friend of mine “the tribunals always prefer to side with the women”.
If you really are so sensitive that you can’t cope with a joke or two from a male colleague then a career in the city is not for you. Try opening a flower shop or a nursery. The city is a place for people who can cope with the pressure of work and the stress of being in a highly competitive environment. In fact the worst people I ever dealt with in the city were women. They were uptight, self-important and bordering on sadistic. My boss on the financial paper I worked on was a woman. A madder person you’d have trouble finding; totally irrational. Men may have their faults, but they’re pretty easy to deal with. Most of the time what you see is what you get and if what they see pleases them you’ll get a lot more.
DKW’s Beth Baird complains that her colleagues went to lap-dancing clubs. Well, hello, welcome to real life Beth. Men like watching girls take their clothes off. This is not news and unlikely to change, although I hear that some American firms, terrified of reprisals, have banned staff from going to strip-clubs. What is the point of earning all that money as a young man if you’re not allowed to stuff it down someone’s bra? Maybe Mrs Baird should liven up her home town of Bishop’s Stortford with a Chippendale’s evening of her own.
There are countless moments in my life when I employ feminine wiles to get what I want. I only passed my driving test because I was wearing a short skirt. (Yes, he actually told me that was why I passed and that normally speeding during your test is a sure way to fail). In fact I only got a job as a financial journalist because I was sleeping with my boss. And I’m still married to him.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is also working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in spring 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019