Real Life: Speak fluent German, look like Sharon Stone: A woman in the City can expect to be judged on her looks as much as her ability, reports Rosanna de Lisle

'I WAS told to wear more make-up and shorten my skirt. I was horrified. This was from a male assistant director. He was genuinely trying to help. He didn't actually say 'Look sexier', but the role-model he picked for me was astonishing: the kind of person who sat so you could see her stocking-tops. Sort of Sharon Stone with knickers.'

Kate is not a model or an actress, but a banker. Two and a half years ago she joined a large British merchant bank as a graduate trainee, having been recruited, she believed, on her academic record and performance in interviews. She never thought her looks were relevant: bright and direct, she is more Jodie Foster than Sharon Stone. She has now moved jobs to become an analyst with an American investment bank. There, she finds male colleagues more respectful, but reports that, for women in the firm, appearance still counts.

Women are not new arrivals in the City. Of Oxford graduates recruited each year in the 'milk round', around 35-40 per cent are now female. The merchant bank Kleinwort Benson has taken three women out of 10 graduate trainees for the past two years; Barings takes 'generally two or three out of eight or nine'. Competition for places is hot - Kleinworts receives 1,500 applications a year and, generally, the number of places has halved since 1987. But, if reports from people like Kate are anything to go by, an extra struggle may lie in wait for many of the enthusiastic female recruits waiting to take up their City jobs this September. For women, starting work in the City can be very similar to boarding at a boys' school. Like girls walking into a dining hall full of schoolboys, they can expect to be wolf-whistled, jeered and marked out of 10 on their looks and dress around the trading floor. Some women play along; others learn to live with it; others hate it so much it drives them out of their jobs.

As a dealer in her second year with a European bank, Harriet sits in the trading room, alongside the sort of men one sees on the television news when the pound collapses: on their feet, stripey-shirt sleeves rolled up, phones dangling over their shoulders, shouting. 'My first day on the dealing floor,' she remembers, 'I was told that all the traders thought I was a stupid bimbo because I had long blonde hair.' So much for her physics degree and fluent German. She swiftly had a hair-cut and swapped her Jigsaw suits for Armani, but the tag stuck. 'At first, I was reduced to tears most days,' says Harriet. In fact she got away comparatively lightly: 'Apparently a girl at an American bank was called 'C***' for her first six months on a dealing floor and nothing else.' Harriet can now hold her own - she makes money - but she still finds men belittle her. 'In this place, a man will always say that you're wrong even if it is blatantly obvious you're right,' she says. 'Often they'll actually say, 'You're too stupid to understand this'.'

Some firms are still nervous of employing women at all. For six years Anna, 31, was a stockbroker with a small, old-fashioned firm. 'I was asked at my interview whether I was going to get married and have children. I was 24. When I got engaged, all hell broke loose. They said things like, 'We're not going to employ any girl above the level of secretary from now on'.'

Anna gave up six months ago, not to have a baby or go to a better job, but: 'because I couldn't beat the system. The City is the last male bastion. It wore me down.' Not instinctively a feminist, she complains that she was separated from the male brokers at every turn. 'I know I was paid less. What was ironic was that they told me.'

The banks and other City employers are generally unwilling to discuss the question of sexist attitudes and discrimination against young female staff. 'We don't notice discrimination here,' said a spokesman for Schroders. 'The girls don't seem to worry.' Kleinworts, BZW and Morgan Grenfell all refused to comment.

Among City men, opinion seems divided. David, for example, a 24-year-old money market dealer at a German merchant bank, was genuinely nonplussed by tales of rampant chauvinism. 'You wouldn't get that here,' he said. 'You do get a lot of dealing room banter, but, if anything, it falls less heavily on the women. It's a lively atmosphere: it's not an accountants' office.' But, when pressed, he conceded that: 'The dealing room only invites a certain kind of woman: they have to have passed the test on both looks and character.'

Tom, 25, a broker with six-figure earnings, was less guarded. 'Lloyds (of London) is appalling. The women are called 'bimbo brokettes' and the underwriters ask if they're wearing stockings,' he alleged.

Support groups for women in the City do exist, but they tend to revolve around senior executives, the early pioneers who beat the system as individuals. Laurenne Hemily-Figus of the Women's City Network finds sexism in the City a 'negative' subject. 'Yes, there is harassment, but I think it's something women can deal with. I think it's a question of doing your job and proving you are superior.'

Defenders of the trading floor atmosphere say men are just as rude to each other as they are to women. 'But that's not the point,' says Denise Kingsmill, a City solicitor who specialises in employment litigation. 'It's raw bullying and if men are doing it to women on account of their sex, that is sexual discrimination. The City is pretty unsophisticated when it comes to dealing with women.'

'There are some horrible, horrible people,' says Tom. 'I don't think it will change. In the States, people get taken to court but it's not a serious threat here. It's all behind closed doors.'

(Photograph omitted)