UK Tribunal Clears Merrill of Gender Discrimination

December 22, 2004 ( - Merrill Lynch has won a key UK sex discrimination case brought against it by a former executive, who had accused the investment bank of being "institutionally sexist" in a $14.6 million lawsuit.

A UK employment tribunal found in Stephanie Villalba’s favor on her claim of unfair dismissal, according to a Reuters report. Tribunal chairman Mary Stacey said in the ruling: “She was shabbily and unreasonably treated.” According to Reuters, a Merrill Lynch spokesman pointed out that the tribunal had also dismissed Villalba’s claims of gender discrimination and unequal pay.

Villalba was removed in February 2003 from her position as market executive for Europe in Merrill Lynch’s international private client group. Villalba, who had a 17-year career at Merrill Lynch, claimed she was undermined by her bosses and described the bank as “institutionally sexist.”

The tribunal’s 78-page judgment upheld Villalba’s claim of victimization on certain specific points, including bullying e-mails relating to a golf contract and her isolated position after she was put on administrative leave from her post. But it dismissed Villalba’s allegation that her boss Ausaf Abbas pushed her to leave and it found that her dismissal was not on grounds of her gender.

Merrill had denied her accusations and argued that Villalba lost her job because she was difficult to work with and lacked leadership skills to turn around the money-losing division she ran. The bank said in a statement: “We said from the start that this case was about performance not gender.” In the ruling, the tribunal said it had not seen evidence of a “laddish culture” at Merrill Lynch during the case.

The tribunal found her boss Abbas “insensitive and arrogant” when he responded “My maid works hard” after Villalba told him how hard she was working. Villalba had claimed she was forced to sit in a stewardess’s seat on a trip on a Merrill Lynch corporate jet and serve drinks to male colleagues. But the tribunal said whoever had been sitting in this seat whether male or female would have had to serve the drinks.