Sex discrimination and the City

Farah Khalique
Published on:

Sex discrimination is still rife in the City, but new gender pay reporting rules threaten to expose the gender pay gap at investment banks and compel them to bring real equality to the trading floor.

Regulatory investigations into Libor and currency benchmarks such as the WM/Reuters 4pm fix – and the subsequent flurry of litigation from fired bank traders – have shone a spotlight on the male-dominated culture of trading rooms.


Carly McWilliams

Ex-Citi currency trader Carly McWilliams described at her employment tribunal how she was treated like "easy cannon fodder whilst off on maternity leave". She won her unfair and wrongful dismissal claim, having been suspended in March 2014 for sharing confidential client information with traders at other banks.

Most recently, it emerged that Nihel Bensenane, who works in foreign-exchange sales at Citi, is suing the bank for sexual discrimination. Both Bensenane and a bank spokesperson declined to comment.

However, high-profile cases such as these are few and far between, as the vast majority of disputes are settled out of court. It is impossible to know just how many women are discriminated against in the City, but discrimination experts share their advice and top tips with Euromoney.

Overt to covert

The treatment of women has slowly evolved over decades. The 1980s were brutal. 

One former currency trader puts it crudely: "Women were either cast as slappers or lesbians." He recalls a gruesome episode in which an FX trader, a manager on the cable desk, unzipped his trousers and dangled his penis on the shoulder of a female trader, in a lecherous display of jubilation after a profitable day of trading. On other occasions, the boss would put a Mars bar in his fly and direct a female trainee to eat it.

Thankfully, such contemptible incidences of sexual harassment would not be tolerated today, as anti-discrimination law has come into effect through the European Union's equal treatment directive, which is implemented in the UK under the Equality Act 2010. 


Nic Hammarling,
Pearn Kandola

There are two main forms of discrimination: direct and indirect. Direct discrimination means being treated differently to someone else and less favourably because of gender. An example would be where a woman is paid less than man who is in the same role, or being sacked after getting pregnant.

Women who are deemed to be a "maternity risk" might still find themselves being made redundant during their maternity leave. A less overt form of discrimination is that their roster of high revenue-generating clients is handed over to someone else when they embark upon maternity leave. They return to work, lumbered with a paltry list of low revenue-generating clients that nobody else wants, and their performance-related pay takes a hit. 

There are also more subtle types of discrimination, says specialist employment lawyer Tim Johnson.

"The more subtle types [are] where the hierarchy is male and you don't get invited to some of the events that men do because they presume you are not interested," he says.

Indirect discrimination is where everyone is treated the same way with the same criteria, but in fact that makes it harder for women than men. A blanket 9am to 5pm working-hours rule might be harder for women, because more women than men bear the burden of childcare.


Samantha Mangwana,
Slater and Gordon

Flexible working hours come up a lot in City cases, says Samantha Mangwana, principal employment lawyer at Slater and Gordon. A bank can feasibly argue that, for risk-management purposes, traders need to be stationed on the bank's trading floor.

"If a bank has got a solid business reason to not accommodate flexible working arrangements then that may potentially be permissible, but with advances in technology it is increasingly possible to accommodate a degree of home working in some way," she says.

One former FX trader is sceptical as to whether the trading floor has truly changed, saying: "Everything looks much more respectable on the surface, but it's a veneer."

Plan of action

Oliver Isaacs

The first thing a woman experiencing discrimination should do is engage with her employer and utilize internal procedures, advises employment law barrister Oliver Isaacs.

"Don't suffer in silence and leave it until it's too late, so that the only perceived option is to leave and make a claim in an employment tribunal," says Isaacs. An employment tribunal is costly – emotionally, financially and in terms of reputation.

Raise the problem informally with a trusted individual; if there is no resolution, there are mechanisms in place to deal with discrimination or harassment.

Beverley Sunderland,

One female trader at a large investment bank says she worked there for years, having joined as a graduate, but she realized she was earning half of what her male colleagues were earning and raised it with HR – she got an immediate 60% pay rise.

If a woman is suffering an ongoing campaign of discrimination and harassment, it is time to start writing a diary, advise lawyers. There is an art to writing a diary, to ensure it is solid evidence if the dispute does eventually end up in an employment tribunal.