Banker in sex-bias case denies she was 'pampered princess'

A senior banker suing Merrill Lynch in a multimillion-pound sex discrimination case denied yesterday that she was "a pampered princess".

A senior banker suing Merrill Lynch in a multimillion-pound sex discrimination case denied yesterday that she was "a pampered princess".

Lawyers for Stephanie Villalba, 42, who earned £1m a year as marketing executive for Europe, told Croydon employment tribunal that her former boss had "slanted" his evidence to put her in the "worst possible light".

She is suing Merrill Lynch for £7.5m for unfair dismissal, sex discrimination, victimisation and unequal pay. Ms Villalba, who has three children and lives in a £4.5m home in Belgravia, central London, claims that a culture of sexism meant that she was patronised, undermined and excluded by managers.

Raymundo Yu, a senior vice-president at Merrill Lynch, submitted written evidence to the tribunal claiming that Ms Villalba spent most of July 2002 on holiday in the Hamptons on Long Island, New York, and was ferried to and from a work meeting in a limousine.

The incident happened a few weeks into her appointment. During an appearance at the tribunal, Mr Yu said that Ms Villalba was asked to attend a key manager's meeting in Princeton, New Jersey, but had said she would be on holiday in the Hamptons for most of July. He added: "I told Stephanie that I was disappointed that she would not be attending any of the off-site meetings and I persuaded her to attend one of the day's sessions." He arranged for a limousine to collect her and take her home.

Mr Yu told the tribunal that the European operation had been losing the bank $1m a week during Ms Villalba's appointment before she was sacked last year. He said that he was concerned about Ms Villalba's overall performance and in particular her unwillingness to travel to visit other offices.

But Dinah Rose, counsel for Ms Villalba, said her client had taken only two weeks' holiday, an arrangement that had been approved on her appointment in 2002. In cross examining Mr Yu she said: "You have spun this paragraph to put Ms Villalba in the worst possible light." Mr Yu responded: "No, that is not what I had intended."

But Ms Rose said: "The fact you arranged for a limo to pick her up at the house in the Hamptons, a round trip of 270 miles, is to suggest that she is a pampered princess ... Travelling there in a car was the normal way you got from the Hamptons to Princeton ... no other sensible way she could have made the journey was there?''

Mr Yu said that all he was trying to do was to show how much effort the company had made to get her to the meeting. Mr Yu said that it was at the meeting that he had first told Ms Villalba that she would need to improve her performance. "I told Stephanie that she needed to stand on her own two feet more and adopt a less confrontational management style with her colleagues."

Later in his witness statement Mr Yu added: "At the same time I was becoming increasingly concerned about Stephanie's leadership qualities, the financial situation in Europe in the second half of 2002, and particularly in its final quarter, was disastrous."

But Ms Rose said the first time her client was aware of criticism was when it appeared in Mr Yu's witness statement almost two years' later.

Mr Yu agreed the European markets had been in turmoil and Merrill Lynch was one of a number of banks facing a financial scandal in America. Ms Rose said that five senior managers had been dismissed and that the European business "was losing a lot of money".

Mr Yu and Merrill Lynch deny sex discrimination. The hearing continues.

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