Manager wins record pounds 230,000 in sex-bias case sex-bias

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A senior local-authority manager yesterday won record damages of more than pounds 230,000 after claiming sex discrimination. Barrie Clement, Labour Editor, talked to Esther McLaughlin, who believes she was the victim of a sub-culture dominated by men.

Angry officials at the London borough of Southwark yesterday registered their intention to appeal against a historic ruling on sex discrimination. Esther McLaughlin, who worked as a pounds 45,000-a-year assistant director of finance, personnel and strategy, said she was dismissed because she was a woman. She told the tribunal that when she was appointed in 1992 she was not allowed to undertake jobs on her own, was moved from department to department and given other tasks just as she got to grips with a project.

Ms McLaughlin, 46, who has two daughters, said she was the victim of "mental bullying" and described how her case was treated with "disdain" by the council. It was difficult to criticise the regime at Southwark because a person in her position might look as if she was not capable of performing her job. She accused "several key officials at director level" of knowingly presiding over her misery, some of whom are still in post.

Eventually she claimed she was singled out among a number of male colleagues for dismissal and that contentions that it was a legitimate redundancy constituted a "sham". When she was forced to leave the council she felt "shock, self-doubt, anger and a sense of injustice", but as breadwinner had to get on with her life. She was unemployed for six months after leaving Southwark in October 1994. Ms McLaughlin now works at British Gas as a contract manager in charge of 600 temporary workers.

Her award - the highest for sex discrimination not involving a pregnancy - was calculated on the basis that it would take four years before she could secure a post at the same level as her job at Southwark. The pounds 234,362 award included a substantial amount for injury to her feelings. The council was prevented from defending its case after failing to disclose documents on the order of the industrial tribunal.

In a statement yesterday Southwark Council, whose five most senior officials are men, said the judgement had been based upon a "technicality" and there was " compelling evidence" to show she was treated as fairly as all other employees affected by restructuring proposals.

The council insisted the process affected male and female employees across the council equally. Ms McLaughlin had been involved from an early stage in shaping and implementing the proposals.

The borough said it tried to find alternative employment for Ms McLaughlin within the council. There were two successive secondments at a senior level, both of which could have led to "substantive posts".

The council "absolutely refutes" Ms McLaughlin's claim of sex discrimination and unfair dismissal, the statement said.