It was headline-making news when ex-Merrill Lynch executive Stephanie Villalba launched her record-breaking $13m claim against the firm for wrongful dismissal, victimization and discrimination. And when Ms Villalba took the stand at the UK tribunal hearing earlier this year, and branded Merrill institutionally sexist, there was a positive media-frenzy. After a mid-summer break, the case resumed and Merrill has been on the rebuttal ever since. And the headlines have mostly faded away. Not that Merrill Lynch will care, as it's probably an indication that the Wall Street firm looks likely to successfully defend the claim. Stories about Goliath slaying David are not, after all, that popular.
Despite Ms Villalba's protestations, Merrill has made rigorous efforts to show that their former European head of the private client business was not fired because of her gender. Instead, the firm claims that she simply wasn't up to the job. And, if gender really was the issue, why would Merrill replace Ms Villalba with another female (as the firm did) ?
Merrill has pulled in around 20 witnesses to defend the claim and all of them are said to have come off as sincere and, perhaps more importantly, human. There were bosses, other employees and human resources professionals all singing from the same hymn sheet - that Ms Villalba was out of her depth trying to turn around a loss-making unit, that she did not complain at the time about the treatment she now says was meted out to her and that she was offered other job opportunities elsewhere in the group before she was eventually fired.
The hearing is now over and it will probably be a few weeks before the tribunal rules. But the smart money is firmly on a full vindication of Merrill Lynch. And if this does prove to be the case, don't expect too many headline-making stories on the subject.
In a related story, nearly 15% of all sexual discrimination claims filed in the US last year were filed by men. That's up from just 9% in 1992.
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