SEX IN THE CITY: Lewd remarks, patronising advice - and that's just from your boss. Life can be a daily affront for the woman in the Square Mile. And when you're paid unfairly and promotion is blocked, it gets worse. How should women play it to win?

SEX IN THE CITY: Lewd remarks, patronising advice - and that's just from your boss. Life can be a daily affront for the woman in the Square Mile. And when you're paid unfairly and promotion is blocked, it gets worse. How should women play it to win? - Doe

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Does the City have a problem with women? You don't have to work there to know the answer. We've seen it in films and on TV and we've all heard the stories. Women at all levels are leered at and undermined They are subjected to a relentless stream of personal comments about their bodies, their private lives and their performance at work. Some are rated on a scale of 10 as to how shaggable they are, or even graded on how many pints a man would have to drink to take them home. At one bank, female traders had photographs of their faces stuck on to the bodies of nude pin-ups. It's ugly, puerile, and stupid. We don't know who added the phrase 'City banker' to the lexicon of rhyming slang, but I'll bet it was a woman.

It's a bit of a surprise, therefore, to discover that inside the City, they see things somewhat differently - and that includes many of the women. The most boorish behaviour is now largely, though not exclusively, confined to the trading floor, where it is dismissed as tiresome but manageable. 'The whole trading floor is a zoo,' explains Cindy Dallas, an ex-trader who recently left the City after 17 years. 'Black humour and verbal abuse - of everyone and pretty much by everyone - is a way of dealing with the pressure. When you're trading, you're gambling with huge sums of somebody else's money. Your decision might make the difference between a pounds 20 million loss or a pounds 50 million gain.

'You've got to make that decision in four seconds flat with everyone around you shouting and screaming. That's pressure. I don't know if you can reasonably expect nice manners under the circumstances. It rarely feels particularly sexist, because everybody comes in for personal abuse, all in the worst possible taste. It can get out of hand, but it's also part of the camaraderie.'

Although it may occasionally be offensive, she adds, it's at least overt. 'My problem was not with equals trading insults, but when insults came from senior management and when it wasn't intended to wind me up but to keep me in my place - below men.'

When Dallas left her last job, it was because she felt 'worn down after years of fighting to be treated equally with my male peers - and that means promoted and paid at the same rate. I've had good bosses but also some very bad ones. I kept being promised pay rises that never materialised, and made to prove myself over and over. A bit of lip from my colleagues was nothing compared to the way I was undermined through my salary.'

This is the real problem for women working in the City and it runs deep and wide through the culture of the Square Mile. It's the institutional sexism that 'allows' women in but pays them less than their male colleagues, and keeps all but a handful of them out of senior and executive positions. It's a way of doing business designed for men (and even then only for men of a particular stripe and generation) - a way that until recently has had no reason to adapt or change just because women have joined the ranks. It's 14-hour days as a matter of course. It's 'networking' with clients at rugby matches and lap-dancing clubs. It's the biggest boys club in Britain, fuelled by testosterone and after-hours alcohol.

In the past 18 months alone, some high-profile and bitterly contested tribunals have revealed the hidden, institutionalised misogyny that underpins the financial markets. But they also reveal a new fighting spirit among women, showing them willing to take the battle of the sexes to a new level - upfront, in public and with the gloves off on both sides. They represent a fundamental shift in attitude in the banks, stimulated by a combination of legislation, market forces, growing confidence and power of women, and a new international breed of senior managers. These have implications for women, and also for the structure and culture of the institutions. Decades after they swept the rest of society, winds of change are blowing through the City - whether it likes it or not.

The tribunal reports make depressingly familiar reading. Isabelle Terrillon, who worked on the European emerging markets desk for stockbrokers Nomura, sued for unfair dismissal and sexual discrimination after claiming she was told to wear 'short tight skirts' at work and was once asked to strip to her underwear and massage a man during a business meeting. In another suit, Julie Bower, a drinks analyst, said Schroder Securities cut her bonus from pounds 125,000 to pounds 25,000 and systematically paid her significantly less than male colleagues doing the same job. Aisling Sykes sued JP Morgan when she was sacked as a senior vice-president after asking for more flexibility in her regular 14-hour working day so that she could spend time with her four children. The tribunal awarded her pounds 12,000 damages for being sacked without warning, but rejected her claim of sexual discrimination. Her six-figure salary influenced the ruling.

'Where an applicant is as highly paid as this, the respondent (JP Morgan) has the right to make certain demands in respect of hours and place of work,' it stated.

'What message does this send?' asks Sykes. 'That you are only entitled to see your children if you're a secretary? No wonder there's a glass ceiling.'

In the most influential tribunal, Deutsche Bank was ordered last January to pay a record pounds 1 million in damages to Kay Swinburne, an investment banker. She had resigned after her senior manager publicly and falsely accused her of sleeping with a male client. He had also subjected her and her female colleagues to a steady stream of sexual comments and insults.

He described Swinburne, who has a PhD and an MBA, as 'hot totty'. Unlike the mutual mud-slinging on the trading floor, this was a clear example of extraordinarily unprofessional conduct and poor management. The tribunal's decision sent shock waves through the City.

Why are cases like this still being brought in the 21st century? After 40 years of feminism and 15 years of equal of opportunities legislation, why have financial institutions remained immune to the social changes that have touched virtually every other aspect of private and professional life in Britain? The answer is money - the answer to almost every question ever asked about the City.

One very senior ex-merchant banker sums it up. 'The City is very, very successful - don't forget that London is the most successful financial centre in the world - and it generates huge sums of money for companies, countries and individuals alike. In that climate, it becomes quite easy to believe that the petty rules and niceties that other people have to live by just don't apply. It is a small, intense, unique world and that's how it likes it. Success breeds arrogance.' It's screw-you money, on a grand scale.

And then there are the people. It's neither fair nor accurate to portray them all as loud-mouthed and aggressive, but most are highly competitive, ambitious and tough. It makes for a world that is stimulating and exciting, but it's also relentlessly demanding and merciless. Everybody is there for one reason: to make money. Everybody is judged by one criterion: the ability to make money. The sensitive, introspective or retiring - of either sex - need not apply.

It is this focus on money to the exclusion of everything else that leads many City insiders to deny all charges of sexism. One man, who has worked in the IT division of several big banks, claims that the financial institutions today are 'a ruthless meritocracy' and explains: 'The crash in 1987 knocked everybody's confidence, and the spate of mergers and takeovers since the early 90s means there's more and more jockeying for position within banks, while global competition means we're all fighting harder for tighter margins.

The old systems of patronising women, or working your way up through the old-school network, are gone - nobody can afford that kind of behaviour any more. If you can make money, nobody cares what sex, colour or age you are. If women were really that good, they would be running the place.'

Pandora Omaset is an analyst with JP Morgan Chase and head of the networking group Women in Banking and Finance. She agrees that women can now make greater progress than ever before, provided they are good enough and tough enough. But, she says, that is to ignore recent history and the drip, drip of discrimination tribunals, which prove that a 'good enough' woman has to be prepared to put up with a lot more abuse and obstacles than a similarly qualified man.

'We have women in our group who have worked in the City for 20 years, and they tell stories that sound as if they come from Victorian London. They were routinely asked at job interviews if they planned to get married or have children. In many banks, a woman who became engaged or got married had to leave her job at once,' she says.

Legislation means those days are gone. 'It's much better. It's important that people know the positive stories. But we're still only halfway there.

It's only really been in the past five years that you could say that women have had anything like a fair crack of the whip. Now the banks are lining up to initiate diversity strategies and we have this new world of quotas for female graduate intakes - and mentoring schemes for women, and even creches and flexible working in some places. But it's so new and it is co-existing with the old world, which is still very much a man's world.'

There's no doubt, she adds, that the high-profile tribunals make a difference.

'Most of the big banks are very publicity shy. They hate to see their brand being dragged through the mud. It increases the awareness that they have to be seen to do the right thing these days.' But legislation and publicity aren't the only drivers of change. Since the mid-80s virtually every bank in the Square Mile has been taken over by American or European owners. The new managers come from different cultures, where our peculiarly British mixture of ingrained sexism and the Old School Tie is seen as distasteful and Jurassically outmoded.

'The American have a different attitude' admits the IT manager, 'but you can't just transplant their culture on to ours. If I had to sum up the general attitude of most British management, it would probably be something like: what motivation do we have to change? So far, things have worked very well. We're successful, we make a lot of money and that's all that really matters. As it isn't broken, why should we fix it?'

While we can blame our class system, the unique, enclosed culture of the City and the arrogance and hysteria involved in generating jaw-dropping amounts of money on a daily basis, the failure of the City to wake up and smell the coffee is fundamentally a pragmatic failure to manage. How else do you explain the failure to pay two people who do the same job the same money? Or allowing senior professionals to act like pissed-up undergraduates? Or following practices that alienate half the population?

Fiona Clutterbuck is managing director for financial institutions and corporate finance at HSBC. This makes her a rarity - a female executive of more than 20 years' experience. She believes there is a new move towards developing proper, professional management which will help transform the culture of the City. 'There was a feeling that we were all about doing deals, and that everything else was a bit pansy,' she says. 'Many banks never even had maternity leave policies until a few years ago because there had simply been no need. But the Americans came and swept the market.

They took over all the merchant banks while we were apparently helpless to do anything about it, and that's because they were much more advanced managers than we are. Planning, anticipation, strategy - those are all management issues. For the first time, we were forced to realise how badly we had failed in that area, and how serious the consequences of that failure have been. Now we're all taking it more seriously.'

It's a surprising hoorah for management theory - the widely derided but eminently intelligent notion that a corporation can develop a model of what it wants its goals and culture to be, and then implement strategies to achieve them. This may be a principle of GCSE-level Business Studies anywhere else in the world but inside the City it's a modern and radical idea. If anyone doubts that improved management can change anything - especially a culture as strong and entrenched as the City's - it's worth looking at the proof.

Most of the new diversity initiatives have started with the North Americans.

Charles Schwab has introduced a programme called 'Building a Culture: No Ceilings, no Barriers, No Limits', which includes action plans based on employee surveys. Its recruitment, retention, training and career development are monitored by race and gender. Two of the company's five vice-chairmen today are women.

Bank of Montreal began a sweeping research and action drive to promote and encourage women as long ago as 1991, and all its executives were assessed on their record for advancing women as part of their performance review.

It wasn't a simplistic quota system, which ultimately does little to challenge the culture, but a new set of fair and rational criteria for judging all candidates. The drive was so successful that by 1999 its proportion of senior women managers had more than doubled from 13% to 32% and its female executives from 9% to 30%.

At Northern Trust, a programme called 'Sustained Leadership Commitment: Diversity at Work' includes mandatory diversity training and systems for talent identification and development. From 1990 to '99, the proportion of female vice-presidents increased from 29% to 39% and women at executive vice-president level went from zero to 14%.

The IT manager asked the right question: Why should the City change?

Good management gives them the reason - by putting structures in place and making their performance part of their own career development and pay reviews. That will change hearts and minds more than any tribunal.

Matthew Barrett now group chief executive of Barclays, was so impressed by his time at Bank of Montreal that he plans to change Barclays' culture in line with his experiences. At present, just 9% of senior executives at Barclays are women, but Barrett has just appointed Niccola Swan, who previously ran the mortgage and insurance arm, to the position of director for equality and diversity.

'Diversity doesn't just mean that you have targets for numbers of senior women or ethnic minorities or disabled people,' she says. 'The old, entrenched sexism in a lot of banking has been caused by the idea that there is only one way to do things. You could come in, but you had to fit the mould.

Diversity celebrates the differences and makes use of the different perspectives and approaches to benefit the business. It means a whole new approach to recruitment and management. Women shouldn't have to be men to get on.'

Women can be their own worst enemies, however, warns Clutterbuck. 'They routinely underestimate themselves, while men do the opposite.'

A male head-hunter told me a story that sums up this difference in attitude.

'I was at a party once and I bumped into the editor of the Spectator.

Months later somebody who had never met him wanted to phone him, and he asked me if I knew him. 'Yes, of course I do,' I replied. 'Just use my name. I'm sure he'll take your call.' A woman would never do that. She could have met the man eight times but she'd still say: 'Well, I've met him - but of course I don't really know him.' Men are full of bullshit, but it works.'

Pandora Omaset agrees. 'Women may be confident individually, but collectively we're not as confident as we need to be. We've all got to take more personal responsibility. In spite of the tribunals, most of us still keep quiet and just seethe inwardly. We have to be more assertive about complaining and about asking for what we want.'

And women have to meet their employers halfway, insists Clutterbuck.

'We all know that some women push their luck. They may take lots of extra time off when they're pregnant, or go home early all the time. It's only ever a small minority but it makes life harder for all women who are constantly battling that suspicion that they haven't got the stamina for the job.

Life in the City is very demanding for everyone - men and women - and you have to be prepared for that. You have to be responsible and not play the woman card too much. But things really have moved on a lot, and that change will really accelerate now. There are very intelligent and decent people here, as well as the more unpleasant ones.'

For now and for the foreseeable future, however, the City remains a place where women who want to progress find that progress just a bit tougher and more unpleasant than do their male peers. Motherhood remains a massive dropout point, and institutional attitudes to maternity leave and half-days off for school prize-givings hover somewhere between hostility and resentful acceptance. 'Life in the City is gruelling and hard,' says Clutterbuck, who has three young daughters. 'There are tough choices to be made. I'm the main breadwinner in my family, which helped stiffen my resolve on my bad days. But I'm glad I stayed. It can be a brilliant, stimulating and rewarding life.'

She believes she got where she is today not only by being good but also by sheer dint of gritting her teeth and hanging on. 'That's been at least as important as any skill I might have. I think it's very important to de-mystify senior City women. We're not superwomen. I wasn't exceptionally talented but I was tenacious. Success is about not giving in or giving up.'


Niccola Swan says companies need to understand that the way they treat staff, and the reputation they develop, can brand the organisation as much as any marketing efforts. Smart talented people can and will chose to work somewhere else if you don't treat them well.

It makes no sense for a global economy's senior staff all to be white and male. Swan believes 'it makes good business sense for employees to reflect society'.

Customers, as well as staff, are becoming more demanding about corporate attitudes to diversity, integrity and equality. They will vote with their feet when they don't like your attitude. Ask Nike. The US has much fiercer anti-discrimination laws but Brussels is working on catching up. Discrimination affects the bottom line both directly (tribunals) and indirectly (adverse publicity and branding).


- Take responsibility for your career. Ask clearly for opportunities or pay rises and complain politely but firmly if you aren't satisfied.

- Keep your sense of humour. Not all bad-taste jokes are meant personally.

Give as good as you get and develop a thick skin.

- When it stops being funny, confront the offender. He may genuinely not realise he's being offensive. Set clear boundaries.

- Use your company's official complaints procedure as a last resort - but use it. Keep a log and collect as much evidence of discrimination as possible.

- Network. You can never have too many contacts. Support and shared experiences are crucial for City women. You can join a network or meet colleagues on an informal basis.

- Find a mentor - or become one. To be supported and encouraged, or to do the same for someone else, can make an enormous difference.

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