City high-flyer Stephanie Villalba has lost her £7.5 million claim of sex discrimination brought against US financial institution Merrill Lynch. Ms Villalba, who had worked at the bank for 17 years, claimed unfair dismissal, victimisation, sex discrimination and unequal pay. The tribunal heard evidence of Ms Villalba's claim that she was "bullied and belittled" and that her boss made "humiliating" comments behind her back. She also complained of being asked to serve the drinks and sit in a stewardess's seat on a corporate flight with male colleagues.
Ms Villalba was successful in her claims of victimisation and unfair dismissal, however the tribunal rejected outright her claim that this was gender related. Her claim for unfair dismissal was based upon the fact that she was dismissed from her post as market executive for Europe and then offered two positions at a lower level. The damages for unfair dismissal are subject to a statutory cap of £55,000. The estimated damages she will receive in relation to her claim of victimisation relating to two emails is not likely to exceed £70,000 as the tribunal only found in her favour to a limited extent.
Her sex discrimination claim focused on allegations of indirect discrimination rather than lewd conduct. Indirect discrimination occurs where an employer treats all of their employees in the same way however there is a disparity in the effect of the treatment. Although the tribunal found Ms Villalba's boss to be "insensitive and arrogant", it held that, overall, Ms Villalba was not treated less favourably on grounds of her sex. Michael O'Looney, a spokesperson for the bank, commented that "We said from the start that this case was about performance, not gender". They claimed that Ms Villalba was simply not up to the job and was losing the company $1million a week.
Merrill Lynch however was not without criticism from the tribunal; the company's practices were faulted, particularly for the lack of transparency in the bank's promotion and appointment system so although the company was largely successful, the case has publicised some of its internal procedural shortcomings.