Female banker in £7.8m claim 'was told to serve drinks'

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The Independent Online

A senior female banker is seeking record compensation of nearly £7.8m from her former employer after she was "bullied" and "victimised" because she was a woman, an employment tribunal heard yesterday.

A senior female banker is seeking record compensation of nearly £7.8m from her former employer after she was "bullied" and "victimised" because she was a woman, an employment tribunal heard yesterday.

Stephanie Villalba, whose 17-year career at Merrill Lynch ended when she was sacked last July, is demanding 20 times her $550,000 (£300,000 earnings in 2002. If she wins the award, it will be the highest ever pay-out in the UK on the grounds of sex discrimination.

According to Ms Villalba, who is married to an Italian banker and lives in Belgravia, it was particularly her immediate boss, Ausaf Abbas, who was drafted in above her in late 2002, who consistently undermined her.

Among the clashes they had was a business trip to Europe on which a group of Merrill bankers took a corporate jet. Ms Villalba alleges that Mr Abbas told her to sit in the stewardess's seat and serve the drinks.

Shortly after being promoted to one of the most high-ranking jobs in the bank, running its European private client business, 42-year-old Ms Villalba was "bullied, belittled and undermined", her barrister, Dinah Rose, told the employment tribunal in Croydon, south London.

Opening what is one of the most high-profile work-related disputes, Ms Rose laid out the claims Ms Villalba is making against her former employer. As well as sex discrimination, she accuses the giant Wall Street bank of unequal pay, victimisation, and unfair dismissal.

Merrill, which will be forced to fly in several senior bankers from around the world to give evidence at the tribunal, denies the allegations. The bank argues that Ms Villalba was over-promoted and unequal to the demands of her new job, which was to run 13 offices around Europe which specialise in advising wealthy clients in how to invest their money.

The hearing was told that on one occasion when Ms Villalba told her superior about the enormity of the workload in the European division - which was suffering from plunging stock markets and as a consequence making very serious losses - Mr Abbas said: "Stephanie, my maid works hard".

Ms Villalba also took issue with an e-mail sent to a colleague by Mr Abbas in which he calls her "high maintenance".

"This was not just crass and insensitive. Using gender-specific language was an outward manifestation of his lack of respect for her. He had difficulty accepting or respecting a woman in a senior role," Ms Rose said.

Merrill has pointed out that it appointed a woman as a successor to Ms Villalba. It added that Mr Abbas and his superior, Raymundo Yu, were forced to step in in 2003 after the private client business racked up "dire" losses of $46m in 2002 for which, the bank said, Ms Villalba had to bear some of the responsibility.

The hearing continues.