Sex Discrimination and the City: It's Still as Rife as It Ever Was, Say Experts ; BUSINESS ANALYSIS

By Mesure, Susie | The Independent (London, England), January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Sex Discrimination and the City: It's Still as Rife as It Ever Was, Say Experts ; BUSINESS ANALYSIS


Mesure, Susie, The Independent (London, England)


The age-old debate over sexual discrimination in the workplace has been re-opened in New York, where Dresdner Klein-wort Wasserstein is contesting claims by five female employees that they hit their head on the German bank's "glass ceiling" when they tried to advance their careers.

One employee, Katherine Smith, worked in the bank's London office, providing a timely reminder that 30 years after the Sex Discrimination Act was passed in the UK, many ambitious career women are finding it as tough as ever to get ahead in most of the City's biggest firms.

Recent research by Cranfield University revealed that one in five of FTSE100 companies still has no senior women director. The number with female executive directors actually fell last year to 14, from 17 the previous year, its "Female FTSE" found. Then there's low pay: women can earn anything up to a quarter less for doing the same job as a man does. And just last week, the Equal Opportunities Commission warned that it would take 40 years for women to break into the ranks of the UK's 100 biggest companies.

The reason, according to diversity experts, is because most City firms have failed to make women feel they belong - despite welcoming them with open arms at the university milk rounds. Women do not laugh at the same jokes as men, do not enjoy the same sports as men and do not hang out in the same places as men, which all plays against them when it comes to promotion time.

Susan Vinnicombe, the professor of organisational behaviour and diversity management at Cranfield, a co-compiler of the "Female FTSE", says it boils down to the "sexual dynamics" within organisations. "Promotions have so much to do with who is sponsoring you. Women don't have the same relationships at the top levels as men do." Sarah Rutherford, a diversity consultant, goes further, attributing the sexual discrimination in the workplace to a "macho way of management". She points out that the "numbers game" - all those female graduates who signed up 15,20 years ago - have vanished. "Where are they?"

Peninah Thomson and Jacey Graham, whose A Woman's Place Is In The Boardroom was published in September, said: "The few women who do manage to reach the top of large companies often feel abraded by the cultures they find there. Women just below the board, who look up at the tip of the management pyramid, often decide not to participate, because the price they will have to pay seems too great."

One senior female investment banker, who advises her employer's executive board on diversity issues, adds: "It is difficult for the new generation of women to find role models because there are a limited number of women at the top." This is largely down to the proverbial "old boys club".

Although the Department of Trade and Industry asked the London Business School's dean, Professor Laura Tyson, to look into this issue two years ago the research by Cranfield shows that little has changed. Alka Bali, a rare senior female investment banker who heads leisure and retail for Close Brothers, said: "There's no doubt it's majority rule. But you just have to deal with that. You have to find your own ways of networking and building up rapport, especially as you get more senior and start trying to win your own business."

The three main areas of contention, according to lawyers involved in anti-discrimination suits, are pay, maternity leave and plain old sexual harassment.

Camilla Palmer, partner at Palmer Wade, a law firm, says: "Half of our sex discrimination cases [which make up 70 per cent of their work] are about pregnancy and maternity leave. Pay is a big issue because the City has managed to get away with any sort of transparency."

This was exactly the gripe of a former media analyst at Investec Henderson Crosthwaite, Louise Barton, who eventually won her sex discrimination case on appeal.

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