Sex in the City

Article excerpt

Lewd remarks, patronising advice -- and that's just from your boss. Life can be a daily affront for the woman in the Square Mile. And when you're paid unfairly and promotion is blocked, it gets worse. How should women play it to win?

Maureen Rice reports

Does the City have a problem with women? You don't have to work there to know the answer. We've seen it in films and on TV and we've all heard the stories. Women at all levels are leered at and undermined. They are subjected to a relentless stream of personal comments about their bodies, their private lives and their performance at work. Some are rated on a scale of 10 as to how shaggable they are, or even graded on how many pints a man would have to drink to take them home. At one bank, female traders had photographs of their faces stuck on to the bodies of nude pin-ups. It's ugly, puerile, and stupid. We don't know who added the phrase 'City banker' to the lexicon of rhyming slang, but I'll bet it was a woman.

It's a bit of a surprise, therefore, to discover that inside the City, they see things somewhat differently -- and that includes many of the women. The most boorish behaviour is now largely, though not exclusively, confined to the trading floor, where it is dismissed as tiresome but manageable. The whole trading floor is a zoo,' explains Cindy Dallas, an ex-trader who recently left the City after 17 years. 'Black humour and verbal abuse -- of everyone and pretty much by everyone -- is a way of dealing with the pressure. When you're trading, you're gambling with huge sums of somebody else's money. Your decision might make the difference between a [pound]20 million loss or a [pound]50 million gain.

'You've got to make that decision in four seconds flat with everyone around you shouting and screaming. That's pressure. I don't know if you can reasonably expect nice manners under the circumstances. It rarely feels particularly sexist, because everybody comes in for personal abuse, all in the worst possible taste. It can get out of hand, but it's also part of the camaraderie.'

Although it may occasionally be offensive, she adds, it's at least overt. 'My problem was not with equals trading insults, but when insults came from senior management and when it wasn't intended to wind me up but to keep me in my place -- below men.'

When Dallas left her last job, it was because she felt 'worn down after years of fighting to be treated equally with my male peers -- and that means promoted and paid at the same rate. I've had good bosses but also some very bad ones. I kept being promised pay rises that never materialised, and made to prove myself over and over. A bit of lip from my colleagues was nothing compared to the way I was undermined through my salary.'

This is the real problem for women working in the City and it runs deep and wide through the culture of the Square Mile. It's the institutional sexism that 'allows' women in but pays them less than their male colleagues, and keeps all but a handful of them out of senior and executive positions. It's a way of doing business designed for men (and even then only for men of a particular stripe and generation) -- a way that until recently has had no reason to adapt or change just because women have joined the ranks, It's 14-hour days as a matter of course. It's 'networking' with clients at rugby matches and lap-dancing clubs. It's the biggest boys club in Britain, fuelled by testosterone and after-hours alcohol.

In the past 18 months alone, some high-profile and bitterly contested tribunals have revealed the hidden, institutionalised misogyny that underpins the financial markets. But they also reveal a new fighting spirit among women, showing them willing to take the battle of the sexes to a new level -- upfront, in public and with the gloves off on both sides. They represent a fundamental shift in attitude in the banks, stimulated by a combination of legislation, market forces, growing confidence and power of women, and a new international breed of senior managers. …

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