Sexism and the City: Women sue bank for record $1.4bn

Click to follow

Not so much Sex and the City as sex discrimination in the city. Six women are suing one of the world's biggest investment banks for $1.4bn (£790m) over allegations that the company refused to promote them and discriminated against them by allowing after-hours trips to strip clubs for male colleagues and humiliating sexual banter in the office.

The case was filed yesterday in New York against the giant German-owned bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein (DKW). It could be the financial world's most expensive sex discrimination case to date due to the sum the women are suing for and because, as it is a class action, it could represent hundreds of women who work for the bank.

The case has been brought by five female employees in New York and one at the bank's London office, who claim that despite years of service to the financial institution, they were treated as second-class citizens compared with their male colleagues.

While tales of macho behaviour in the City and on Wall Street are hardly new, the DKW case highlights how pervasive that culture still is in many of the world's largest financial institutions.

In one of the allegations, Jyoti Ruta, a director in the bank's capital markets division who has worked for DKW for 12 years, states that she was the only female banker attending a dinner to celebrate a successful deal. Ms Ruta says she was pressured to leave the gathering so that her male colleagues and their clients could go to a strip club.

In another instance, Katherine Smith, who works for DKW in London, says she left a box of sweets at the end of her desk on Halloween. A boss allegedly said loudly in front of Ms Smith's colleagues that she should not have left the sweets out or men would have their "hands in her box". On another occasion he referred to Ms Smith as "the Pamela Anderson of trading".

Another woman bringing the case, Maria Rubashkina, has stated she knew of a managing director at the bank who routinely brought prostitutes to the office during his lunch hour.

Another of the claimants, Traci Holt, asserts that she was marginalised because she had taken maternity leave. Ms Holt has said that a senior colleague remarked that her imminent maternity leave for her second child was going to be a "vacation" and added: "Don't tell me that you're part of the conspiracy of women that want us to believe that raising children is difficult."

The women, who include Joanne Hart and Kathleen Treglia who have worked for DKW for 10 years, say they were passed over for promotion despite strong performance records.

To back up the claim of there being a glass ceiling at the bank, the lawsuit points out that women make up a tiny proportion of the most senior jobs at DKW. In the capital markets division, in which most of the women bringing the lawsuit work, just four of the 258 managing directors are women.

Douglas Wigdor, of the New York law firm Thompson Wigdor & Gilly, who is representing the women, said: "You would think that in 2006 the days of gender discrimination and the glass ceiling would be gone, but each one of these stories is very compelling, and is backed up by the statistics of how few women there are at senior levels at the bank."

DKW said: "It is not our policy to comment on pending or threatened litigation. DKW fully complies with all applicable employment-related laws and is confident that any claims to the contrary are without merit. DKW intends to vigorously defend this matter."

The lawsuit comes after another high-profile sex discrimination case was brought against the US investment bank, Morgan Stanley. The Wall Street firm in July 2004 paid $54m to settle a landmark class-action lawsuit brought by Allison Schieffelin, a convertible bonds salesperson. Ms Schieffelin claimed the bank discriminated against its female employees in awarding promotions and determining salaries, and said behaviour such as visits to strip clubs and giving women breast-shaped birthday cakes was rife. The award was shared by more than 300 women at the firm who joined the lawsuit.

There have been several other lawsuits brought by women against their employers. Laura Zubulake, a former director at the New York office of the Swiss bank UBS won £15.5m from a sex discrimination claim last year after being told by a male colleague that she was too "old and ugly and she can't do the job".

The DKW case promises to be the most large-scale litigation since the Morgan Stanley case because the women's lawyers are bringing it as a class action. If certified as such by the judge, it will mean that hundreds of female employees at DKW will be included in the case unless they choose not to take part. It could exceed the Morgan Stanley one as the damages being sought are greater and because DKW is accused by six named claimants, rather than just one.

Women who sued

By Geneviève Roberts

* In April last year, Laura Zubulake, 44, won £15.5m from UBS in New York. A male executive said she was fired because she was "old and ugly and she can't do the job".

* Stephanie Villalba, a former Merrill Lynch executive, lost a £7.5m action in February last year, but allegations of unequal pay and unfair dismissal were upheld.

* Elizabeth Weston received a £1m settlement from Merrill Lynch in 2004 over a colleague's "lewd" comments over a Christmas lunch.