Merrill Lynch was institutionally sexist, says female banker

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A female banker seeking more than £7m in damages from the investment bank Merrill Lynch over claims of sex discrimination described the firm yesterday as "institutionally sexist", saying she believed women who sought to penetrate the male-dominated social scene would be accused of sleeping their way to the top.

A female banker seeking more than £7m in damages from the investment bank Merrill Lynch over claims of sex discrimination described the firm yesterday as "institutionally sexist", saying she believed women who sought to penetrate the male-dominated social scene would be accused of sleeping their way to the top.

Stephanie Villalba, 42, a former executive, told a tribunal that a male-dominated management culture would box women into a "vicious circle" of poorer pay. She was the victim of "intolerable discrimination" from her male boss, Ms Villalba also told the employment tribunal in Croydon, south London.

Ms Villalba, who is married and has three children, says she was victimised by managers and forced out of her job last year. She is claiming about £7.5m in compensation from Merrill Lynch for sex discrimination, unfair dismissal and unequal pay. Her action could result in the highest payout for a sex discrimination case.

Merrill Lynch denies the claims, saying that Ms Villalba was removed from her post as head of private client business in Europe because of "record losses" the company was suffering in the region.

Ms Villalba told the tribunal that early in her career she had decided that to climb the management ladder she had to focus on achieving good results. This was because of the bonding between male managers, something that women could not easily do for fear of attracting negative comments.

"I would describe Merrill Lynch as being institutionally sexist. The problem is not the view of individual managers but of the whole culture of the management team," she said, adding: "Everybody who is making the decisions is male."

For men "it was important to be regarded as a 'good guy'. Such bonding took place in nightclubs and when playing golf," she said.

Ms Villalba told the tribunal in her view it was "dangerous" for women to form relationships in a similar way in case they were tarnished with the reputation of a female who was "sleeping her way to the top".

She added that she had worked hard during her 17-year career at the firm to impress on performance alone, despite the fact that she felt women would be "boxed into a vicious circle" where they could not advance up the pay scale. She would have been prepared to commit "another 15 years of my life at Merrill Lynch".

Ms Villalba told the tribunal that by 2002 she had become one of the most senior women in the firm's private client business, and one of only five or six women on a similar grade in the organisation. However, she said that it took many months for her to be appointed to a board of directors in 2001, an appointment that she said would have happened sooner for a male of similar experience.

The case continues.