Gender discrimination is alive and well in the workplace - but the Tories have made sure many women can't afford to challenge it
There are two issues raised by the case of Svetlana Lokhova, which ended this month in a £3m payout for the former Sberbank employee.
The first is the bullying sexism which still pervades the banking industry. When Lokhova was appointed to a new post at Sberbank’s London office in 2011 she already had an impressive career with the company behind her; she was also the only woman on a small team.
Almost immediately she became aware of a hostility towards her – a ‘strange atmosphere’. When the situation became unbearable in 2012 and Lokhova sought legal help, information requests revealed reams of abusive email communication about her.
Lokhova (‘Crazy Miss Cokehead’ to her colleagues), was called ‘a schizo nightmare’ and accused of being a cocaine user. Sexual overtures were made; when she turned them down she was put on a list of people to be fired. The 33-year-old told the BBC today how utterly broken she had been by the experience, adding that most, if not all, of the damages won would go on legal fees.
In a statement, Sberbank said that Lokhova’s experience was isolated and unrepresentative of the company. History tells us this is unlikely.
High profile tales of misogyny stream out of London’s finance district with depressing regularity. In 2007 investment banker Oksana Denysenko was made redundant after maternity leave led to questions about her ability to function as both a mother and an employee. In 2009 Nomos Capital employee Jordan Wimmer was forced from her job after what she called a campaign of sexual harassment by her boss.
In 2010 Elizabeth Spencer, vice president of Lehman Brothers, was fired for taking maternity leave. In 2010 HBOS business manager Hayley Tansey described how she had been harrassed by colleagues for eight years, including an incident where a colleague stripped naked in front of her in a hotel room. In 2013 Isabel Sitz won damages from Oppenheimer Europe after complaints about sexual harrassment led to a slash in her salary and ultimately her dismissal.
There is no question that to enter the City of London as a woman is a different experience. The 33 per cent pay gap aside, there are clearly other emotional, sometimes sinister, battles for women to fight, whatever interested parties claim to the contrary. Ex-broker Nigel Farage, for example, says that sexism in the City is over, but also thinks that women are ‘worth less’ to employers than men.
But the other point about Svetlana Lokhova’s horrible experience is that it is one which is replicated away from the crowded glass towers of the big banks, in smaller offices and staff rooms around the country, every single day. The difference is that most women cannot afford to seek justice at all.
In 2013 the Conservatives introduced employment tribunal fees, meaning that it costs £1,200 to have a case heard before a tribunal. Appeals can cost up to £1,600 and witnesses can no longer have their expenses paid. Essentially, this is punishment and deterrance for the inconvenience of speaking up against injustice.
And it’s working. In the six months after the law was changed, unfair dismissal claims and other complaints fell by 55 per cent. In the same period, the number of sex discrimination cases brought fell by a staggering 91 per cent from 6,310 to 591. Assuming that there was not a sudden overhaul in attitudes towards female workers, that’s thousands of women who have been priced out of justice.
As with the Tories’ other major justice overhaul – drastic cuts to legal aid – it is women who are being hit the hardest. A March poll by management standards body Investors in People found that 88 per cent of women in full-time employment believe that gender discrimination exists in the workplace; 51 per cent said they had experienced it themselves.
A woman dismissed from work while pregnant finds herself in a terrifying financial situation, and spending thousands of pounds on a high-risk case (the potential cost of losing a tribunal has been doubled, from £10,000 to £20,000) is simply not an option. Unison is so concerned about the impact of these fees on workers’ rights that it is challenging their lawfulness in court.
I hope that Svetlana Lokhova can move on from the nightmare she endured at Sberbank. But I also hope that coverage of her case may draw attention to the fact that investigations into workplace sexism and bullying are slowly becoming the right of the rich.
Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.
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