London’s Garrick Club May Finally Be Forced to Change Men-Only Rule

(Bloomberg) -- The Garrick Club has prevented women from joining its prestigious ranks for nearly 200 years. Finally, that may be about to change.

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Following a leak of its membership list published by the Guardian newspaper almost two weeks ago, there has been an outpouring of criticism of its men-only policy – as well as counterattacks from people who say it’s all an overblown, woke fuss about nothing.

The Garrick’s policy — which allows women to visit as guests but only men to be members — is well known, but the leaked list has triggered a renewed push for change. It includes a string of judges, senior lawyers and prominent public figures associated with the club which was set up in 1831 by the actor David Garrick and whose membership mainly comes from influential men in the arts, media and law.

Among the most vociferous critics have been senior women in the legal profession. Charlotte Proudman and Elisabeth Traugott have organized a letter signed by lawyers criticizing the club’s entrenched “sexism and discrimination” and led a demonstration Thursday outside its building in Covent Garden, in London’s West End. Some judges have resigned their memberships of the Garrick in the wake of the leak, amid complaints that it is inappropriate for people in such a role to be members of an institution that bars women.

There has also been a retreat among those holding senior public office: Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary who oversees Britain’s civil service; Richard Moore, head of the secret intelligence service known as MI6; and Robert Chote, a prominent economist who is head of the UK Statistics Authority, all resigned following the leak.

“I have no problem whatsoever in a free country if people want to join all-male or all-female clubs,” said Harriett Baldwin, a prominent Conservative member of parliament. “However, if you are leading an organization which is aiming to be inclusive, it does not send the right message.”

That argument could prove awkward for businessmen who are members of the Garrick, such as Louis Taylor, chief executive of the government-owned British Business Bank, which has public objectives of boosting funding for women-led businesses.

A spokeswoman for British Business Bank said: “Louis Taylor has been a member of the Garrick Club for the last 22 years. During his time at the British Business Bank, he has informally invited a small number of people he already knew for breakfast or dinner.”

The Garrick did not respond to requests for comment.

‘Totally Unacceptable’

Some Garrick members are confident that change is on the way.

“I am 100% in favour of no discrimination of any sort,” said Roger Parry, the British media entrepreneur and former chairman of polling business YouGov. “Particularly for a club that’s meant to have its origins in the theater and the creative arts, it is totally unacceptable to exclude people on the basis of gender.”

Others disagree, arguing that it’s a private decision for the Garrick and that its rule is irrelevant to wider societal debates. Some point out the existence of women-only clubs.

Reformers, however, believe they may be about to win, partly because of the bad publicity surrounding the club and worries of more resignations to come.

Previous attempts have been made to overturn the men-only membership rule, with the latest vote taking place last year. That was unsuccessful despite more than half of voting members saying women should be allowed. The Garrick’s rules are said to require a two-thirds majority.

Those wanting change also believe their case has been dramatically strengthened by a new legal opinion sought from prominent lawyer David Pannick. The Garrick has insisted for decades that its rules, in referring to members as “he,” meant that only men could join. But Pannick’s team is understood to have said that is just a typical use of the English language and does not necessarily bar women. Pannick did not respond to a request for comment.

The Garrick is due to hold a committee meeting on April 4, according to a person familiar with the matter, and so a decision could be taken then. However, its ruling committee could also delay the matter to its annual general meeting in July when a new vote is expected, the person added.

Several women could be quickly nominated to become members, one person said. That could present fresh challenges, as many men wait years - some report delays of a decade - until they get in. The Garrick could face an awkward choice of allowing a group of women to jump the queue, or having them languishing on a waiting list.


Some people familiar with the Garrick believe women would not gain much from being members. It is a pleasant place to visit, housed in a grand building with a good wine list and excellent art, they say, but is not really where high-powered decisions are taken, especially as a lot of its membership are quite elderly.

It is also not London’s only all-male club — others include White’s, traditionally frequented by the UK’s aristocracy and upper classes.

But others point to the informal networking that comes with being in a club. Amanda Goodall, professor of leadership at Bayes Business School, said it was a classic case of “homophily” — a term created by sociologists to describe preference for things that are the same — which leads to the hiring and promoting of people from similar backgrounds.

Being in a club leads to a range of opportunities, according to Jacqueline Abbott-Deane, chief executive officer for gender equality organization One Loud Voice. She is a member of the Lansdowne Club in Mayfair, which has allowed women for decades. “The advantages are many,” she said. “The opportunity to meet members with various backgrounds and interests is made much easier.”

Women-only clubs include the ALLBright, in Mayfair. But critics of the Garrick argue these clubs do not compare with men-only institutions founded a century or more ago, occupying imposing buildings with sometimes huge bequests. They say the Garrick row encapsulates wider inequalities, especially in business. The number of women who run FTSE 100 companies hovers at about 10, and women remain in the minority at senior levels of many professions such as law.

Token women

If the Garrick opens its doors to women, it will have to find some willing candidates. LBC presenter and former BBC journalist Emily Maitlis named several women on Thursday that she said had been nominated as possible members. They include the historian Mary Beard, broadcaster Cathy Newman and former Conservative politician Amber Rudd, Maitlis said in a post on X.

Several senior businesswomen contacted by Bloomberg News said they were unlikely to apply, however. They included Jayne-Anne Gadhia and Anne Boden, both senior figures in finance who have carried out reviews for the government about female representation in boardrooms.

“My younger self might have wanted to join,” Gadhia said. “But I don’t feel I’m missing out. And young women now might prefer to go somewhere else and be brilliant.”

“Decisions are being made elsewhere that drive the economy,” said Boden. “I’m not going to lose any sleep over the Garrick.”

Ann Francke, chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute, believes that any reforms will not be straightforward. “Putting a few token women into that rarefied atmosphere is not going to change anything,” Francke said. “The question is, how relevant is the Garrick in today’s world?”

--With assistance from David Hellier, Katharine Gemmell and Jonathan Browning.

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