World Bank's Immunity Frustrates Woman in Sex Discrimination Case
Albert, Andrew, American Banker
WASHINGTON -- Susana Mendaro claims she was a victim of sexual harassment and discrimination while working at the World Bank, but she can't get an official hearing on her case.
The former World Bank employee has been pressing her claim for nearly five years, ever since she filed her first formal complaint with the bank on June 25, 1979. Miss Mendaro claims the World Bank twice turned down her supervisor's recommendation that she be promoted, that she was not given enough responsibilities in her job, and that she was once physically harassed by a superior.
Federal courts have twice dismissed Miss Mendaro's case because international agencies like the World Bank maintain immunity from such sex discrimination suits. She is now a Washington marketing consultant.
After exhausting the judicial avenues, the 40-year-old Argentine citizen recently shifted her fight to the political arena, where she has found support from some members of Congress.
But despite the backing, the General Accounting Office last week refused to examine Miss Mendaro's allegations, primarily because she is not an American citizen. The GAO is the investigative arm of Congress.
Last year, the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues, headed by Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., and Rep. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, demanded that Miss Mendaro's case receive "fair handling" by the World Bank's in-house Administrative Tribunal.
The tribunal was set up in 1980 to help settle internal contractual disputes, but thus far its jurisdiction hasn't extended to sex discrimination complaints. Doubts Whether Panel Will Take Case
As a formality, Miss Mendaro is now petitioning the tribunal to accept her case. But she has serious doubts about whether the panel will take up the issue because sex discrimination is not listed as a specific area within the tribunal's jurisdiction.
Still, World Bank officials say they will make that decision within the next six months to a year. In its four-year history, the panel has yet to rule against the bank in a job discrimination suit.
And James B. Burnham, the U.S. executive director to the World Bank, said in a recent letter to Rep. Schroeder and Rep. Snowe, "The bank pursued an intensive internal investigation into Ms. Mendaro's allegations and was unable to substantiate them."
Miss Mendaro attributes the probe's inconclusive findings to the fact that only defendants in the case were questioned by World Bank officials.
"It's been four or five years and still nobody wants to hear this case, but I plan to keep going," said Miss Mendaro, who is receiving free legal services from a Washington law firm referred by the Women's Legal Defense Fund. "I am not frustrated because somebody will have to hear it. You just have to persist," she said in a recent interview. …