Sex discrimination and the City

By:
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.

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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. 

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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.

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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

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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.

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Beverley Sunderland,
Crossland

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.

Beverley Sunderland, managing director of Crossland Employment Solicitors, recommends writing a separate Word document for each diary entry, which will show the date it was created and last modified. That way, the bank cannot argue in an employment tribunal that the diary has been falsely amended at a later date to spice it up.

Pregnant Then Screwed

Pregnant Then Screwed is a helpline for women who feel they are being discriminated against, either during or after maternity leave, offering an hour's worth of free legal advice. Danielle Ayres, employment solicitor at Gorvins, specializes in maternity and discrimination cases, and works closely with the helpline.

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Danielle Ayres,
Gorvins

"We thought we would just get enquiries from women who don't get paid a lot, or whose first language is not English, but on the flip side we have had an awful lot [of enquiries] from City workers who are on a lot of money," she says.

It is very common for women in these types of situations to be depressed and on medication, says specialist employment lawyer Johnson.

"Typically, [when] a client has been to see the doctor before coming to see us, [they are] near to being signed off at work," he says. "[Seek] counselling if you feel you are getting too stressed."

If a dispute gets really ugly, it might be time to call in an independent mediator. Lawyer Eileen Carroll QC co-founded CEDR Chambers, which is a practice group of mediators. A mediator can sit between an individual and the colleague they are in dispute with, listen to both sides of the story and bring the two together to reach a resolution.

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Eileen Carroll,
CEDR Chambers

She says investment banks have invested heavily to try to recognize equality issues in the workplace, and understand unconscious bias. Part of the City's equality problem is that managers unconsciously hire in their own image, says Nic Hammarling, head of diversity at Pearn Kandola.

"Unconscious bias basically stems from our preferences for people that are familiar to ourselves," she says. "The way it plays out in investment banks is that we see leaders unconsciously making decisions that favour mini-me's, people like them, which tends to be white male employees with similar value sets."

Furthermore, boundaries between work and social life can become blurry when working hours are especially long. The advent of social-media applications such as WhatsApp and Snapchat have made communication easier than ever, but, under the influence of "alcohol or total stupidity", says CEDR's Carroll, people can send inappropriate messages.

"I always say to women … you need to design events that work for you and all your colleagues," she adds. "Take hold of agenda rather than just going along with other agendas."

Gender pay gap

The UK government is taking a tougher approach to equality over pay. From 2018, investment banks will be affected by a new rule which requires companies to make their gender pay gap publicly available online.

Sam Smethers, chief executive of gender equality and women's rights charity The Fawcett Society, welcomes the move. 

"[This is] particularly welcome in finance," she says. "It is a really significant opportunity to make some change."

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Audrey Williams,
Fox Williams

Audrey Williams, employment lawyer and partner at Fox Williams, believes it will expose the gender profile of investment banks and add transparency, particularly around bonuses and share options.

"This is a significant task for banks," she says. "I have done a lot of work on advising clients and organizations [about] how this going to work."

Employment law barrister Isaacs adds: "There is a lot of opaqueness in the banking sector on pay, especially bonuses. Very often there is no clearly defined reason or rational basis for why one person is remunerated substantially more than another. This can leave the bank open to substantial claims."

The Fawcett Society is pushing the government to go even further with its reform. There is no penalty as of yet for non-compliance, and companies with a large pay gap will not be required to publish an action plan.

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Sam Smethers,
The Fawcett Society

"There should be a penalty for those [companies] that don't comply at all," says Smethers at The Fawcett Society.

Progress is being made, but women who cannot resolve a dispute still have to make the difficult decision whether to push ahead to an employment tribunal. Experts agree this can spell the end of a woman's career in the City, hence enormous schedules of loss to compensate for loss of future earnings. 

It's not impossible to find future employment though – McWilliams' case generated much negative publicity, but she has since found work in electronic FX sales at foreign-exchange services provider Edgewater Markets.