Software spy to stop the sexist remarks that cost millions

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The Independent Online

Had cancer, been a pain and now pregnant. These were the damning words in an e-mail where an executive at Schroder Securities described a colleague, Julie Bower, and which led to a £1.4m payout from the company for sexual discrimination.

Had cancer, been a pain and now pregnant. These were the damning words in an e-mail where an executive at Schroder Securities described a colleague, Julie Bower, and which led to a £1.4m payout from the company for sexual discrimination.

But banks and other financial institutions could soon be installing monitoring systems to catch and stop sexist remarks before matters get to court.

Autonomy, the software developer whose technology is used by governments to monitor possible terrorist activity, has transferred its know-how to protect banks and City institutions from the growing tide of sexual harassment and discrimination cases.

The company's Aungate division has launched a sexism detection program that automatically alerts companies to acts of sexual harassment and discrimination within the organisation, by monitoring e-mails, phone calls and instant messaging systems.

The company said it has put its technology to this use at the request of corporate customers, who fear the embarrassment and costs of high- profile sex discrimination cases.

There have already been a number of claims, containing allegations against the macho culture of City institutions where women are passed over for promotion, are paid less than male colleagues and endure offensive comments about their appearance.

Merrill Lynch is involved in a case for £7.5m of compensation, the biggest of its kind so far. Stephanie Villalba, a former senior banker, claims she was the victim of unequal pay and victimisation at the bank, such as being ordered to act as a stewardess while travelling on an executive jet.

Aungate hopes that by automatically detecting inappropriate behaviour, which companies can then act on immediately, it will stop offensive practices becoming entrenched in the company's culture. "Proactive remedial action can be taken which realigns individuals with the more positive culture that companies desire," said Ian Black, managing director of Aungate. "The alternative is to risk ignorance of such behaviour, which often creates a hostile environment in the workplace, and leaves the company open to costly sexual harassment and discrimination cases."

The technology claims to be so sophisticated that it does not rely on keywords. Instead, it has "a conceptual understanding" of communications and "is able to understand the meaning and intent of language, detecting abusive content even if it appears in the form of slang or code".

Aungate's customers already include the Securities and Exchanges Commission in the US, and major banks such as ABN Amro, HSBC, Merrill Lynch, Lloyds TSB and Deutsche Bank.

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