A female lawyer has succeeded in claims of sex discrimination, victimisation and harassment against her former employer.
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. She told the employment tribunal that she was unfairly dismissed following a "campaign of victimisation" and had witnessed repeated sexist behaviour from her male bosses.
Biggs said that one of the directors, Steve Roberts, referred to her as "pushy" and branded her as "overly dominant" and "incredibly ambitious". The tribunal found the statements about Biggs' work ethic to be "negative" and "sexist", saying it was "highly unlikely" the terms would have been used to describe a man with similar traits.
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 underperforming staff. 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 told Biggs to "use her charms" to get on his good side, which was also a phrase that would not have been said to a man, found the tribunal.
Roberts also 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.
When Biggs was going on maternity leave, another director, Ian Barr, allegedly told a female employee to "keep her legs shut", and on another occasion Barr described a female colleague as looking "like a dyke". The tribunal criticised Barr for his "derogatory" comments.
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."
A Bantersaurus Rex, yesterday
Biggs told the tribunal that during a lunch meeting she had been groped by a lawyer who represented a client, but when she reported it to Barr, he had tried to downplay the incident.
Biggs also raised the issue of unequal pay with the company, upon discovering that her salary was less than a similarly ranked male colleague, over a period of five years. But Roberts warned her that it could be "dangerous" if she tried 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".
She brought an internal grievance for various issues, accusing Roberts of abusing his power 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.
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."
The remedies and compensation for Biggs will be determined at a hearing at a later date.
A spokesman for A Bilbrough said: "Naturally we are disappointed with the outcome of the recent tribunal which we feel does not accurately reflect the culture, operations or activities of A Bilbrough & Co." He added, "We are currently investigating options for appeal. As the proceedings are not yet complete we are unable to comment further".
Biggs did not respond to a request for comment.