Six-figure sex discrimination cases against City firms have been hitting the headlines at an alarming rate, with two cases already this year.
Six female US employees of investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein filed a $1.4bn (£800m) sex discrimination claim for unfair and abusive treatment at the beginning of January. This was followed last week by Claire Bright, head of asset and liability management at HBOS, filing an £11m claim for sex discrimination and wrongful dismissal.
So what is it about the City environment that leads to so many claims? Dianah Worman, diversity adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said that working in an environment that deals with huge amounts of money every day could contribute to the problem.
If employees are highly-strung and very competitive, respect for fellow colleagues can go out the window.
“The pace in City firms is pretty fast and macho. It’s about making a lot of money, taking risks and making quick decisions. But when you get it wrong the stakes are high,” she said.
“This makes the pressure high and creates an intense environment. Unless you are very laid back, this makes for a challenging working environment. If you have a short fuse you are more likely to blow and this is often seen in the way people relate to each other.”
Glenda Stone, chief executive of women’s network Aurora, agreed that this environment is hugely demanding and often leaves little time for outside commitments. This can put women at a disadvantage.
“We know that women generally carry greater home and family responsibilities. For these reasons, fewer women enter and remain in the sector and this results in more patriarchal cultures and styles becoming the norm,” she said.
For those women who do remain and advance their career to senior levels, they are often in a minority and can be singled out due to differing styles from their male counterparts, she said.
Stone also said that with most senior management teams being male, diversity is not always observed. “Strong, assertive, educated women may challenge and question the status quo and this is not always accepted by the male majority. Therefore irreconcilable disagreements elevate with an ensuing lawsuit,” she said.
However, a spokeswoman for City Personnel Group, an association promoting best HR practice within the financial services sector, said many City firms have highly developed approaches to managing diversity and reducing discrimination.
“One of the most important of these is creating a meritocratic culture which clearly encourages, recognises, and rewards performance. HR functions across the City have been at the forefront of this activity,” she said.
Even so, Worman said there are additional measures HR departments could take to tackle the problem.
“HR should not feel cocky just because they have an equal opportunities policy in place. They need staff to take ownership of the issues so people recognise differences and value differences in the workplace.
“Without enabling people to understand these issues, they won’t be able to develop better interpersonal skills themselves. They need to build these skills and address training budgets if need be to achieve this,” she said.