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The sober truth on why I prefer to give these boring black-tie dinners a miss

By Grace Dent

Published 28/11/2015

Business savvy: CBI chief Carolyn Fairbairn has suggested an alternative to formal business dinners
Business savvy: CBI chief Carolyn Fairbairn has suggested an alternative to formal business dinners

One of the main reasons, I think, that many men fear women's rise in the boardroom is that once we are there, we start gobbing off - letting light in on magic - and ruining the ride for a lot of the chaps.

Carolyn Fairbairn, the first female chief of the CBI, has done just that by admitting she has "never been a fan" of black-tie business dinners. In fact, during Fairbairn's stellar rise, she says, she rarely stayed to the end of such events.

She has three children and, presumably, feels setting eyes on them more vital than observing another regional CEO belching his way through boeuf en croute.

To confound matters, Fairbairn has suggested a productive alternative. Why not "an early evening discussion panel, hold a proper debate, and then people can go home by 7.30pm"? Woah, Fairbairn. That sounds suspiciously like actual, proper work.

This "debate"? How does she envisage the pre-dinner Champagne, the four-course wine flight, the after-dinner digestive and the rare Japanese single malt nightcap to fit around it? And all by 7.30pm?

Does Fairbairn not understand that corporate functions have been such a bums-on-seats success over the past century chiefly because they begin at 7.30pm, which is when the average family home is a war-zone populated by bleating children refusing to eat broccoli, or remain lying down in their beds. Of course she does.

And I rather love Fairbairn's exercise in boat-rocking: because she's not saying the black-tie do is pointless, she's simply gesturing towards a more accurate point.

When Fairbairn says black-tie functions aren't "inclusive" to women, she is not saying women in 2015 are missing out on invites. We're certainly invited. We add sparkle and diversity. We stop the men going fully feral. Some of us are even rather influential and in charge of fairly large budgets.

No, she is saying that when our embossed-patterned card arrives, many women wince at the time-frittering. We weigh up the cost of the overnight stay, or the midnight cab home. We think of the grooming costs: there will be no excuse for looking anything less than supremely maintained, no digging out an ancient tuxedo and sweeping a comb once through our hair.

We think, most crucially, about the out-of-office time and how we can leave late and start early the next day to accommodate. And we think about the baby-sitters, boyfriends and husbands who will have to bend to make way for the evening. Then we place these outgoings versus what we might gain feasibly for schlepping there and we RSVP. Thanks, but no thanks.

And not only to stuffy black-tie functions with their back-slapping speeches, but to semi-formal corporate celebratory dinners, and to the endless glut of tedious award ceremonies, where gongs are mysteriously given to the companies who pre-booked the most chicken dinners. No, no and, thank you, no.

I'm not sure about other women, but I'd rather be doing my work. Or lying on the floor of my living room ruffling my Labrador's ears. I do not have children, but I imagine the appeal is roughly similar. I also get more sense from toddlers and Labradors than I do at corporate functions.

I'm not saying that there isn't any business happening at these events, but experience tells me it is mainly hot-air, hokum and wine-fuelled high-fives which translate to nothing in the cold, sober morning after.

After two decades of braving London's corporate balls, functions and prize-givings, I refuse to take any work-based proposal seriously if put to me while I am standing in a diamante-encrusted frock. People fill time at these excruciating events by talking gold-standard, cloud-cuckoo-land nonsense.

I am weary of guests who cannonball across rooms, oiled on cheap plonk, hazy as to my identity (Dawn O'Porter, Anna Richardson, Gizzi Erskine, Noel Fielding?) yet keen to offer me work (which does not officially exist) paid for by a budget which they, in the cold Nurofen-hungry light of day, will recall has been already allocated. And I'm just a media type. If this is how banking and finance is run, God help us.

But what Fairbairn has touched upon is something I've thought for a while: that face-showing has its place in small doses, but what is important is a prolific body of work, a good reputation and good people skills during a brief chat over coffee; that it is possible to rise to the top of the ladder while, like Fairbairn, leaving parties early to cuddle your children.

The most industrious people have lots of early nights: they have work tomorrow.

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