Muslim manager claims millions

Mona Awad is claiming £16.7 million in damages from the Halifax Bank of Scotland for sexual, racial and religious discrimination.

Mona Awad is alleging discrimination.
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LONDON // Mona Awad, a 29-year-old British-born Muslim whose family came from Egypt, has revived the controversy about bigoted behaviour within Britain's financial services establishment. Ms Awad is claiming £16.7 million (Dh92m) in damages from the Halifax Bank of Scotland, otherwise known as HBOS, for sexual, racial and religious discrimination.

At the preliminary hearing this week of an employment tribunal in Nottingham, where Ms Awad worked as a corporate manager for HBOS, her lawyers described a macho culture of lewd jokes and racial and religious bigotry. If the tribunal finds in her favour - and the case will not be heard in full until later this year - it will be a huge blow for the financial services industry which claims to have eradicated the behaviour which led to multimillion-pound compensation payments to women.

But campaigners in Britain say the Awad case shows that the industry remains as prejudiced as ever. They say banks and other financial institutions, especially within the high-rolling city of London, deliberately recruit aggressive, cynical men who are incapable of treating women or ethnic minorities in a civilised manner. Fawcett, a non-governmental organisation in London which has been campaigning for equal rights for women for more than a century, says that "behind the conspicuous wealth of the city lies a hidden story of discrimination affecting women at all levels".

It claims that sexism in the city - and in the country as a whole - remains rife, and that women earn almost 25 per cent less than men who do similar jobs, a statistic confirmed by the Equal Opportunities Commission, which says the statistic for the city is even worse, with women earning almost half of what men take home. In 2007, the BBC reported that hundreds of women in New York and London were suing an investment bank for US$1 billion (Dh3.68bn) for sexual discrimination. The BBC also interviewed many women who had worked in London's financial heart, who described how they were routinely treated as sexual objects by male colleagues.

What makes the case of Ms Awad, who is married, even more of a headline grabber, is that she is claiming multiple discrimination: that she was picked on because she was a woman, a Muslim and not white. Under British employment law she will have to prove each count: that HBOS targeted her because she was female, because she was a Muslim and because her family came from the Middle East. She is not allowed to say that the bank simply discriminated against her as a person.

"It is crazy," said Zohra Moosa, a senior campaigner at Fawcett. "She must show they discriminated against her on three separate counts; as a woman, a Muslim and as a person who was not white. The law should be changed. You cannot split up a person up like this." In a written statement to the tribunal Ms Awad said she was subjected to "disgusting innuendo". She said she had kept a diary of the abuse meted out by two male managers, both of whom have since left HBOS after an internal inquiry into the affair.

"The repeated acts of harassment destroyed my self-esteem and confidence," she said, adding that she eventually became ill and could not work. The tribunal will hear about a succession of incidents, such as a manager allegedly accusing her of "sleeping her way to the top". On another occasion, it is claimed the same man asked her if, as a Muslim, she "carried bombs on trains". She said she was also mocked for fasting during Ramadan.

After complaining about what was happening in Nottingham she was transferred to Derby, but the abuse there was as bad, she claimed. Anti-discrimination campaigners say if she wins, it will show that while Britain has some of the toughest anti-discrimination legislation in the world - it is unlawful to discriminate for racial, religious, sexual and even age reasons - it is still far from being tolerant.

Ms Moosa, of Fawcett, says companies in Britain are still run mostly by white, middle-aged men, who know how they should behave towards women, gays and ethnic minorities, but at heart remain uncomfortable with people who are not like themselves. "These men rely on the rules to tell them how to act. But they don't always understand why or how they should behave fairly," she says. Joanne Wade, one of the UK's top employment lawyers, says there has been an increase in discrimination claims because people now understand their rights.

"Employers are more careful now but they often get it wrong," she said. "Many do not have the language to talk across religious and cultural divides."