A Bantersaurus Rex in full swing.
A female lawyer who succeeded in claims of sex discrimination, victimisation and unfair dismissal against her former employer, has been awarded over £150,000 by an employment tribunal.
Shipping solicitor Helena Biggs worked at A Bilbrough & Co, a maritime insurance management company, from 2004 to 2018, rising to the position of associate director. Prior to that, she was a solicitor at Barlow Lyde & Gilbert (pre-merger with Clyde & Co) and trained at Ince.
Biggs brought various claims against A Bilbrough and three of its directors. At employment tribunal hearings in 2019 and 2020, she claimed that she was unfairly dismissed following a "campaign of victimisation" after she had raised concerns regarding unequal pay.
One director, Steve Roberts, had referred to Biggs as "overly dominant" and "incredibly ambitious". The tribunal said these were "negative" statements about Biggs' work ethic and drive, and "would not have been made about a man who wanted to progress within the business and worked hard to achieve that".
The tribunal also found that Roberts used "sexist language" when he described Biggs as "pushy".
Biggs voiced a concern that her colleagues would see her as the "Wicked Witch of the West" because she was the person who was expected to deal with underperformance. In Roberts' evidence, he said that a male colleague described Biggs as a "ballbreaker", which, the tribunal noted, was accepted as fact, "even though that person had originally described her as supportive".
The tribunal found that Biggs "was a conscientious manager who gave feedback" and "assisted" junior and new staff. And "there had been no formal complaints and no grievances raised" against Biggs "in relation to her management style and no allegations of bullying had been raised by the staff".
In another instance, Roberts asked Biggs to "use her charms" to persuade him to do some work, which the tribunal said "was clumsy and could be a reference to her gender since this is a comment often made to females in the media and in society".
When allocating cases, Roberts said he would not give a particular fleet to Biggs because the operators of the fleet held sexist views, and he could not "force them" to work with a woman.
Comments by another company director, Ian Barr, also came under the spotlight at the hearings. When Biggs was going on maternity leave, Barr told another female employee to "keep her legs shut", and on another occasion described a female member of staff as looking "like a dyke".
The tribunal criticised Barr for his "derogatory" comments, saying that it was likely that the women he addressed "may have felt unable to challenge him." The tribunal added that such "banter" can be offensive as "not all women want to or can get pregnant and it is stereotypical to assume so."
On another occasion, a female client invited Biggs for drinks, and Barr allegedly suggested that this might be because the client was a lesbian. Barr argued that he said this to "protect" Biggs, but the tribunal noted that it was "not clear how making this comment would protect her."
Biggs told the tribunal that during a work lunch, she had been groped by a partner of a firm who had a close relationship with one of A Bilbrough's clients. The following day, Biggs reported the incident to Barr. But he was unsympathetic about it, she claimed, and tried to make it into a joke.
Biggs discovered that she was paid less than a similarly ranked male colleague, over a period of five years, and discussed the wage difference with Roberts. But he warned her to be careful, saying it could be "dangerous" if she was to raise the issue with management.
Biggs persisted, and A Bilbrough eventually agreed to grant her a pay rise. But it did not backdate the payments for the full period, stating that this was because the business had provided financial support for Biggs' MBA. However, the tribunal noted that A Bilbrough had not previously suggested to Biggs that funding the course would be linked to her salary.
Roberts gave Biggs a list of objectives that "amounted to an excessive and impossible workload", found the tribunal, and he "put them together because of her gender and to create an oppressive environment for her".
Biggs brought an internal grievance for various issues, including that she had been victimised because of her complaint of unequal pay. She also accused Roberts of abusing his power as her manager, and "exhibiting intimidating or demeaning behaviour".
In the grievance outcome, Barr upheld parts of the complaint, but did not agree that that there had been discrimination, or that Roberts had misused his power.
A Bilbrough later terminated Biggs' employment, citing personality clashes due to "irreconcilable differences" between Biggs and Roberts.
The tribunal ruled that Biggs had been unfairly dismissed, finding that A Bilbrough had wanted to get rid of her when she "challenged their authority" and "caused them difficulties" with her grievances including her complaint of unequal pay.
In a remedy judgment, the employment tribunal has now ordered that A Bilbrough pay Biggs a total sum of £151,811, which included £53,840 for injury to feelings and £28,581 for past lost wages.
When the initial judgment came out, a source told RollOnFriday: "The behaviour which the judge in this case has recognised as being unlawful is common in shipping law firms and until now male bosses have enjoyed a large degree of impunity."
Biggs said: “The size of this award reflects the very poor corporate behaviour in this case. While it was partly about sex discrimination, the Tribunal said that the primary reason for my dismissal was because I shone a light on suspected wrongdoing by Directors at the company."
She added: "Like me, many whistleblowers lose their jobs for doing the right thing, and that was why I wanted to bring this case – to highlight that injustice and to set the record straight.”
A statement by A Bilbrough said: "We were naturally disappointed by the outcome of the Tribunal which we feel does not accurately reflect the high standards of the company. Nevertheless, we fully recognise the importance of ensuring that any instance of behaviour that is not fitting with our expectations is addressed proactively and robustly."
The statement continued: "We have therefore taken substantive steps to identify and address any drivers of inappropriate behaviour. This includes engaging independent third-party experts to thoroughly review our corporate culture and deliver a range of additional leadership, diversity & inclusion and related training to all members of staff. We are confident that, through this process, we have put necessary measures in place to ensure a safe and inclusive working environment for all."