Foreign Office sued for sex and race discrimination

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The careers of women and ethnic minority civil servants working at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are held back by a glass ceiling that is supported by an inherited culture of discrimination, it was alleged yesterday.

Manchula Kuganesan, a highly experienced accountant from London, told an employment tribunal that, for almost 11 years, she had been overlooked for promotion despite being more qualified than her white male colleagues.

She described the Foreign Office as being the most "conservative" of all government departments which still implemented discriminatory practices dating from a time when women who married were forced to resign.

In her witness statement to the court she said in all her time at the Foreign Office she had not found one role model. "I quickly appreciated that the FCO was the most conservative and traditional government department within which I had worked. It does not deal with change well and many of its practices are outmoded."

She said that she had agreed with the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, who launched a "web crusade" to try to change the "stuffy image of the Foreign Office" which he said appeared "forbidding".

Mrs Kuganesan, who is suing for race and sex discrimination, told the tribunal: "I agree – it is forbidding. It has not embraced diversity or equal opportunities and this appears to be borne out by monitoring data and statistical data, to the extent that it is kept or disclosed by the FCO.

"When I started I was conscious that I was the most senior ethnic-minority female employee within my department. I was also conscious that almost all of the senior finance-related posts were held by white men. I have no role models. By contrast with my own career progression, my white male counterparts have enjoyed dramatic progress."

Mrs Kuganesan, 49, qualified as an associate member of Chartered Institute of Management Accountants in 1985 and was an accountant in the private and public sectors, holding posts with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and Food, the National Audit Office, and the Home Office.

She added: "Aware that there might be barriers for me, I took to the challenge of winning over hearts and minds. I found quite quickly that life was being made difficult for me by the accountants on whose co-operation I relied. There was resistance to the changes I had to introduce and also to the specific steps of management of projects.

She continued: "One in particular tried to cause friction between myself and the chief accountant by feeding him misinformation. They did not appear to respond well to a BME [black or ethnic minority] woman in a project manager role, or appreciate that in this capacity, I would have to pull on the reins from time to time."

The hearing at the central London employment tribunal continues.