Women? We Won't Touch Them with a Barge-Pole; MASSIVE PAYOUTS FROM DISCRIMINATION LAWSUITS ARE FUELLING A NEW WAVE OF SEXISM IN THE CITY

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Byline: HELIA EBRAHIMI;LISA BUCKINGHAM

She wasn't the first, but Nicola Horlick hit the headlines eight years ago as a multimillionaire investment manager juggling a highflying career with raising five children. It seemed that the supposedly impenetrable glass ceiling of the City had at last been shattered.

Not only were women - and working mothers at that - taking leading roles in the Square Mile, but investment banks, fund managers and brokers were falling over themselves to parade their 'female-friendly' credentials.

City institutions are still preaching sexual equality, but something quite different is going on behind the scenes.

Senior executives are now daring to whisper that they are no longer willing to employ women in senior positions.

Headline-grabbing lawsuits against big financial institutions from women who claim to have been harassed, passed over for promotion or treated unfairly when they had children are sparking a damaging backlash.

As Elizabeth Weston, 30, arrived in court last week with a fresh complaint against giant investment bank Merrill Lynch, which reportedly paid her a [pounds sterling]1 million out-of-court settlement for discrimination last year, one top City executive said: 'My US operation won't touch them with a barge-pole. They think it's too risky to employ women in decent positions.

'Here, even when I'm sure we can win a case, my lawyers say the damage to our reputation from fighting a sex discrimination suit is not worth it. So we settle out of court.' Despite the endeavours of financial institutions, swathes of the City echo to the coarse language of the locker room, where male executives network effortlessly to gain promotion and women are often regarded as sex objects - wheeled out if it is felt a little feminine charm will help clinch a deal.

Five years ago, broker Icap banned employees from claiming lap-dancing on their expense accounts. Such moves were expected to overturn the macho culture.

But women are now paying a price for diversity. One senior manager at Merrill Lynch said: 'Life at Merrill is good if you're a woman. Nobody wants to upset a female employee in case she charges sexual discrimination. …