25 Mar 2014

Stairs or sexism? Why men served lunch at the Hague

The catering company accused of sexism for banning women from serving lunch to world leaders hits back, telling Channel 4 News using male waiters was “practical” because they could “navigate stairs”.

Fifty-three world leaders met at the Hague on Tuesday to discuss the best way to tackle nuclear terrorism.

But the focus soon shifted away from the world leaders, and on to the staff serving their food, after it emerged that the catering company involved had a “male-only” policy for this most lofty of lunches.

Dutch catering company Van der Linde does employ female waiting staff, but had reportedly issued a male-only rule for personnel hired to serve at this event. Hans van der Linde, director of the catering company, was quoted in the Dutch national newspaper Algemeen Dagblad, and the Independent, as saying that women distract from the “uniform” look he was required to provide. “If 20 gentlemen are serving and three platinum blonde ladies, then that spoils the image,” he said.

It was decided that male servers without aprons would find it easier to navigate the stairs while carrying plates Van der Linde

He added: “The personnel needs to act as reserved as possible, and you can’t achieve that by adding a couple of pretty, conspicuous ladies to the mix.”

Speaking to Channel 4 News, Mr Van der Linde said his comments quoted in newspapers were “not correct”.

But in a statement, he defended his decision, and said there was “an additional practical advantage” to using male waiting staff. The statement reads: “The servers had to use a steep staircase and it was decided that male servers without aprons would find it easier to navigate the stairs while carrying plates.”

‘We asked for one sex’

The “all-male” controversy appears to have initially stemmed from the Hague rather than the catering company.

The press office at the Hague told Channel 4 News they had specifically asked the catering company for a “uniform” look among the waiting staff who would be serving world leaders, which according to their rules means either all men, or all women – but apparently not just one age or race.

“We specified two things,” said Daphne Kerrmans, spokesperson for the summit. “There was experience, and we wanted some unity in how they looked… we asked for one sex. The only thing that was important for us, was that there was unity.”

Mr Van der Linde said: “We weren’t prohibited from using female servers. However we were asked to ensure that the servers projected uniformity and were as inconspicuous as possible. We could have gone with an all-female team, but the all-male option had an additional practical advantage.”

Both the catering company and the Hague were keen to point out that the leaders lounge, where world leaders and foreign ministers spend their time, is served by male and female waiting staff. Of the 400 staff employed by Van der Linde catering, around half are women.

But for this key lunch, it was male waiters, serving (mainly male) world leaders.