THE BUCKS STOP HERE; She's the Highflying Banker Who Lost Britain's Biggest Sex Discrimination Claim and Is Now Facing a [Pounds Sterling]1.5m Legal Bill. Does This Mark the End of Multimillion City Payouts to Disaffected Women?
Byline: SUE REID
THE light over the desk at Stephanie Villalba's fivestorey townhouse in one of the finest streets in London's Belgravia burns late into the night.
When her three children are tucked safely in bed, the woman at the centre of Britain's biggest sex discrimination case thumbs through the bundles of 12,000 legal papers plotting her next move in an historic row with a powerful investment bank. It is an unseemly brouhaha which has exposed the tawdry inner workings of Britain's financial centre, the socalled Square Mile of the City of London.
And it has left in tatters Stephanie Villalba's once brilliant and lucrative career with the U.S. corporate giant Merrill Lynch.
Accused by her male bosses of being a tearful conspiracy theorist, unable to cope with a highly demanding job and reluctant to pull her weight in the 24/7 world of international finance, today the 43-year-old must be wondering where it all went wrong.
And why - following a ruling this week - she's been landed with a legal bill of more than [pounds sterling]1.5 million after bringing the huge claim for sexual discrimination in an extraordinary 'Sex and the City' feud. Today some City commentators believe that the size of this legal penalty will act as a brake on the enormous number of discrimination cases brought by disgruntled women against City institutions.
The truth, of course, is more complicated than that, as the Mail has discovered.
Speaking at her sumptuous Eaton Terrace home this week, Stephanie Villalba refused to comment on the outcome of her case. 'It is very difficult for me,' she told the Mail quietly as she packed for a weekend away with her 45-yearold bespectacled Italian banker husband, Alessandro Ciravegna, and the family.
'I am trying to get on with my life as normal for the sake of my children.'
To this end she has hired a PR firm to resurrect her public persona, and is reported to have signed a [pounds sterling]250,000 book deal to tell her side of the story.
No doubt the tome will detail a workplace where, she says, sexism was rife and women were excluded from bonding in the nightclubs and on the golf course, where male executives effortlessly networked to gain promotion.
Villalba insists she was bullied, belittled, underpaid and undermined by men at Merrill Lynch. When a male colleague grabbed her thigh during a business lecture, her complaints were met with laughter by one of her bosses.
Once, she says, she was pressed into serving drinks to six male colleagues on the company's private jet as it flew from Milan to Frankfurt for a financial meeting. By the time she had handed out the cans and coffee, there was none left for her.
In 2003 the clever, multilingual graduate of America's top university Harvard was sacked as a board director of the bank, the only woman ever to have risen so high at Merrill Lynch.
VILLALBA claimed unfair dismissal plus sexual discrimination and sued the bank for [pounds sterling]7.5 million. Six months ago she won her case for unfair dismissal, receiving the top award possible of [pounds sterling]55,000. But her allegation that she suffered sexual discrimination during her 17-year career was rejected. Under UK law there is no upper limit on the amount she could have received if she had won.
But if the high profile of her case and its cataclysmic failure - as one of her close friends told the Mail, 'she feels everything has gone against her so far' - halts the spate of sex discrimination actions by women which has dogged the City of London, then it will radically change the Square Mile, too.
The embarrassment caused by such sexist imbroglios in the 21st century, and the enormous cost of fighting the sexism claims, means that the world of banking is being forced to mend its ways. As one lawyer specialising in discrimination legislation observed this week: 'Villalba's fight for equality may prove to be a watershed in the City of London. …