Focus: Sexism - are women cashing in?

A series of victories for women in high-profile sex-discrimination cases will have made sad reading for the likes of Godfrey Bloom. Here two champions of women's rights attack and defend the new claim culture
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The Independent Online

Melanie McDonagh says Yes

Melanie McDonagh says Yes

Few people are entirely immune from the attractions of making enormous amounts of money from litigation, especially if the matter of legal fees is taken care of by the no-win-no-fee system. If the case is taken against an unlovely corporation which can afford it, why not? And if you can also claim to be benefiting your entire gender, why, you'd be a fool to yourself not to exploit the cash potential of sex discrimination.

Over the past few weeks there have been a number of eye-catching cases apparently based on this reasoning, from the good - like last week's group action by BA stewardesses who had to start again at the bottom of the career ladder after taking time out for maternity leave - to the unimpressive, such as that element of Stephanie Villalba's claim for £7.5m from Merrill Lynch relating to her being asked to pour drinks on a business flight.

Their combined effect has not been happy. What your average employer comes away with is a vague sense that women employees spell trouble - whether it's the Equal Opportunities Commission on your case for asking a woman to pour the tea at a meeting or the prospect that your business can be disrupted by a key employee taking up to a year off every time she has a baby, before returning to the same position as before.

The most telling comment on the whole business was from Ronnie Fox, a senior partner at an employment law firm, who remarked that he would routinely ask any woman coming to him with a grievance: "Was there an element of sexual discrimination? Why not just throw it in so we can claim more money?"

Everyone had a good laugh this week at the expense of the UKIP man in the bowler, Godfrey Bloom. The new MEP remarked that "no small businessman with a brain in the right place would hire a lady of child-bearing age". Of course, he only does it to annoy, because he knows it teases, but the man was expressing the view of a swathe of the CBI as well as family firm employers who might have only a couple of dozen staff.

Generous maternity rights are just dandy if you're talking about the civil service or indeed BA, but quite another matter for firms that employ about a dozen people. And what about the self-employed? Does a woman running a hair salon give herself a year off ?

Obviously, sex discrimination in corporate Britain and America exists. There is also discrimination on the grounds of class and education. A couple of decades ago, your chances of advancement in the City could have been usefully assisted by being a Freemason, which not only left women out of the loop, but Catholics as well. We're starting from a pretty low base here. But if we're talking about the City - and the most high-profile cases are against investment banks - the system provides the remedy as well as the problem.

Those women who earn half a million a year and complain - capitalism makes for a wonderful loss of perspective - that their bonuses are smaller than those of their male colleagues do not inspire universal sympathy.

The reason anyone gets paid such a sum is that they generate business. If they feel they are getting short shrift from one firm, the answer is to move elsewhere, taking their know-how, clients and contacts with them. Investment banks are gender-blind to the extent that profit-generation is what they're for, not the perpetuation of patriarchy. If you lose a woman fund-manager whom your clients trust because you treat her badly, then your overall performance suffers and the competitor she moves to is laughing. Simple as that.

Allison Schieffelin was awarded £6.5m when Morgan Stanley bought off a class action brought by 350 female employees. She felt that she had been left out of the firm's corporate bonding sessions which took place at strip joints and Las Vegas casinos.

"This settlement benefits everyone," she said afterwards. Can I take issue with that? When employers have to think hard about employing women because they may sue on the grounds of gender, I'm not sure that she's done much for women. Except one.

Beatrix Campbell says No

What is it about some women that makes them shrug off the sisterhood when one gets £1m from a global corporation desperate to shut us up? City lawyer Elizabeth Weston has just been paid such a sum after bringing a sexual harassment and discrimination case against one of the world's serial offenders, Merrill Lynch.

Her protests through the proper channels reaped a whirlwind of corporate cruelty. She is not alone. Wall Street and City women, gladiators in their chosen professions, are at last confronting the leading edge of global finance. They're not pussycats, they've chosen their careers in ferocious cultures untouched by modern manners or the vaunted feminisation of the workplace. Whether we like challengers such as Weston is irrelevant - it is the awkward, embarrassing cases that change things.

Merrill Lynch, like Morgan Stanley, another serial offender, is paying out millions, and likely to pay out many more, to shield its system - sexism - from public scrutiny. Revelation would harvest such obloquy that the company would have to send its entire workforce on a course: How Not to be Sexist. It would not hurt. It would save money and reputation. The world would be better for it. But no, the bosses would rather not. Their sexism is worth everything to them, it seems.

Then there's the columnist employed to rubbish other women. Mariella Frostrup, for example, thrilled by the attentions of the builders next door, wondered last week what was the matter with Weston who complained about a drunk boss at the Christmas party offering seasonal sexist benediction.

These women never understand power, not least their own. They're so traditional, they don't know that disrespect is built into their own contract of employment. They've got a talent for scorn that will always alight upon some poor soul who is having a go, trying to sort something out. Global corporations dispense millions to fortify themselves against a regiment of high-flying gladiators whose devastating stories tell us what corporate sexism really means. It ruins lives. And these women's protests probably ruin their careers. Weston will discover what everyone who has ever pursued a discrimination case knows: even if you win, you lose. You need to take the money because you may never work again.

Pious commentators are only ingénues in a bigger, dirtier game. They rescue the real baddies, the corporations and their craven New Labour friends who not only tolerate but affirm their unfettered dominion. The effect is shattering. Sexual harassment and sexist pay systems have made the City one of the most inequitable places - the pay gap between the genders is 43 per cent. Among Britain's graduates in Britain, the pay gap is the same as it was when the Equal Pay Act was introduced in the 1970s.

But something is afoot: without any political champions on either side of the Atlantic, women are taking on the corporate culture of the financial giants. Their courage should be rewarded. It is time this government took their side. Barbara Castle was shamed into reforming the law when the Ford sewing machinists went on strike in 1968 over an equal pay claim that could not be satisfied within the wages system. We need state intervention and a cultural revolution.

Morgan Stanley paid $12m recently to a Wall Street bond saleswoman to silence the "salacious testimony" that would have been aired if her case came to court. The shaming thing about these cases is what they tell us that we can't bear to hear about both the scale and seriousness of sexual harassment. These aren't exceptions to the culture, they are the culture.

Women who protest against such actions, or turn away from them to entertain us with whimsy about the builders, don't trouble themselves with the incremental disgust that is making women who do stronger, even when they take on some of the richest men on the planet. In going to the courts and going public, women like Weston have to do something they don't want to do: draw attention to their bodies, disclose uninvited intrusions and fantasies, lay bare what they wanted to keep to themselves: that is, themselves. Think about it, girl.