Banker in sexism claim had an attitude problem, says boss

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A senior banker bringing a multimillion-pound claim against the merchant bank Merrill Lynch for sex discrimination was accused by her former employers yesterday of being "very high maintenance" and arrogant.

A senior banker bringing a multimillion-pound claim against the merchant bank Merrill Lynch for sex discrimination was accused by her former employers yesterday of being "very high maintenance" and arrogant.

Stephanie Villalba, 42, who was dismissed in July 2003 from her £1m a year job as marketing executive for Europe at the bank, claims she was the victim of a culture of sexism in which she was patronised and undermined by male colleagues.

Her boss, Ausaf Abbas, told an employment tribunal in Croydon that he found Ms Villalba very high-maintenance. She had developed an "attitude problem", he said.

He denied claims made earlier during the hearing by Ms Villalba that she had been required to serve drinks to the male executives on the flight, acting as a kind of air hostess.

He admitted, however, that he had been present when a male colleague put his hand on her leg during a business meeting in Frankfurt in November 2002. Ms Villalba had previously told the tribunal that Mr Abbas had tried to "laugh it off" by dismissing this as the executive's "wandering hand problem". Mr Abbas countered: "She did not seem distressed by what had happened and brushed it off as a non-issue."

In evidence submitted to the tribunal, he said: "She appeared to be very dependent on higher management support and seemed to find it difficult to make decisions herself."

He described how in one phone call with Ms Villalba she "broke down and cried". He added: "I do not recall exactly what Stephanie said, but it was along the lines that she had been working so hard and was under a great deal of pressure and that nobody understood the strain she had been under and just how difficult her job was."

Mr Abbas told the tribunal yesterday that his relationship with Ms Villalba deteriorated after she was told that her 2002 bonus was to be cut by almost a third so that her total pay for the year would be $550,000. Mr Abbas said when Ms Villalba complained that her hard work might go unrewarded he had responded by saying his own maid worked hard but she had not been given a bonus.

Dinah Rose, Ms Villalba's barrister, asked whether Mr Abbas understood why a senior female executive might find this comparison offensive. She asked Mr Abbas, a UK national of Pakistani origin: "If someone said you were working like a black, would you this very offensive?" He replied: "Yes I would."

Ms Rose then asked: "So you understand why a senior female executive found the reference to a maid offensive?" Mr Abbas replied: "It was made in context."

There was a feeling after the bonus cut that Ms Villalba was "building a case against the firm", Mr Abbas said. By late January 2003 senior Merrill Lynch executives had decided to "take Stephanie out of her position as quickly as possible". Mr Abbas said there was a general lack of confidence in her leadership abilities.

Ms Rose then claimed that Merrill Lynch had a history of sex discrimination. Ms Rose asked: "Does the existence of these cases make you question whether there is a problem of discrimination?"

Mr Abbas replied: "No it doesn't. We are a very large organisation; we'd like all our employees to behave, but some employees let us down."

The case continues.