Mary Dejevsky: We need more selfish high-heeled bitches

It is well-paid women bankers lawyers and pilots who are best placed to fight their corner
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The Independent Online

Stephanie Villalba, Elizabeth Weston, Jessica Starmer... You probably haven't heard of them or, even if the names seem dimly familiar, you may not immediately be able to place them. And I have some sympathy. The more "Sex and the City" cases that find their way into the media, the more tempting it is to tune out or turn the page.

Stephanie Villalba, Elizabeth Weston, Jessica Starmer... You probably haven't heard of them or, even if the names seem dimly familiar, you may not immediately be able to place them. And I have some sympathy. The more "Sex and the City" cases that find their way into the media, the more tempting it is to tune out or turn the page.

Haven't we been around these tracks before? Here is a well-groomed woman - invariably pictured in high heels - earning a stratospheric salary and a generous bonus on top. Yet here she is whingeing to a tribunal about her pay or conditions and how all she wanted was to be accorded the same treatment as the men.

As in the US, most people in this country have now had sufficient political correctness drummed into them not to express their true feelings on such matters aloud. But as each new case arises, I wouldn't mind betting that it is not only men of a certain age whose instinctive response is: "For heaven's sake woman, what are you bitching about? Shut up and be grateful for the money."

This response is all the more likely with the three cases I mentioned, where we are now into the second round. Ms Villalba, who - you may recall - complained about being asked to play cocktail waitress on the company plane, lost her claim against Merrill Lynch for sex discrimination, while winning her - less valuable - claim for unfair dismissal. She is now calling for action against four Merrill executives who, the employment tribunal concluded, had lied while giving evidence.

Merrill Lynch is also the target of Ms Weston's claim. Having won a settlement of £1m over "lewd comments", she is now charging that the company deprived her of a promised chance to study for an MBA and set out to destroy her career - and all because she had dared to sue for sexual discrimination.

Ms Sturmer's case, which is slightly different, is also returning to tribunal - because her employer, British Airways, is appealing. She is the pilot who won her claim to work half-time in order to look after her small daughter. BA said she had not completed the requisite number of flying hours to qualify to work half-time. The pilots' union, Balpa, argued - successfully - that BA had produced no evidence to prove that she was not capable of working half-time. BA is now expected to say that completion of the requisite number of flying hours is a safety issue and that it is for the airline, not for an employment tribunal, to decide what is safe practice.

There can be little doubt that these "second round" cases will attract even less interest and even more disdain than when the first rulings were handed down. And again, there will be thoughts harboured, if not words spoken, about well-off professional women grasping for money they don't "deserve" and claiming "privileges" as rights.

Yet there are significant principles at stake in each of these cases. Ms Villalba lost a claim for sexual discrimination even though, it appears, several senior company employees falsely denied knowledge of a crucial meeting. Ms Weston claims she was victimised after winning a colossal settlement in her favour. Not being sponsored for highly-prized further study might not itself be evidence of victimisation, but a derogatory reference in the wake of a lawsuit surely comes close. She may have been unrealistic in remaining with her employer, but she had every right to do so, and every right to fair treatment.

Similarly with Ms Sturmer. If BA applies stricter rules on part-time working than other airlines and those rules have a discriminatory effect, then it must be prepared to defend them. Personally, my sympathies in this case are split. It seems to me that a pilot with one small child and another on the way, who works for a company with known rules on flying hours, might not have the strongest case. But practices and principles are at stake here that undoubtedly deserve a further airing.

And the fact is that it is well-paid professional women such as Ms Sturmer and the others, who are by far the best placed to fight their corner. Those many women who are further down the income scale, in low-paid, often part-time, employment, can rarely afford the money or the risk of contesting an employer's decision. They know full well how dispensable they are. They know how hard it will be to find another job in the likely event they are labelled trouble-makers. And they need every last penny of their salaries. Even if they are aware of their rights or their trade union is prepared to support them, the overall cost of going to tribunal is just too high.

The women bankers, lawyers and pilots are already pioneers who have had to become used to standing out. Their past earnings give them not only security, but the access to good lawyers that is essential for any individual going to law. And while the - often negative - publicity may discourage other employers from recruiting them, they cannot be deprived of their qualifications.

In taking their employers to tribunal, these women may or may not be acting exclusively out of self-interest, and there will be many who resent, or simply dislike, them. But the arguments and the rulings that result from their cases will stand as markers of acceptable company conduct for the future. This is an area of law and individual rights where the rules are still being laid. Such litigants are needed as much as ever.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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