Do Deutsche Bank’s ‘Prettier’ Women Get the Best?

This article originally appeared in Bloomberg View on May 5th, 2013.

Most big-name financial firms pay lip service to diversity, peppering their websites with smiling women and people of color who are in short supply in the mostly white-male trading rooms and executive offices of real life.

Amid the spin, though, there’s one bank that wins plaudits around the globe for its gender programs.

At Deutsche Bank AG, business conferences and seminars for women attracted 5,000 of the company’s employees and clients last year, according to the bank’s website. It has scored a spot on Working Mother magazine’s “100 Best Companies” list 13 times since 1996, and was named “Best in Financial Services Sector” by the U.K. charity Working Families, which does research on work-life issues.

Eileen Taylor, Deutsche Bank’s global head of diversity, said in an e-mailed statement that a program called Atlas, started in 2009, has helped push 50 percent of the women who have used it into broader roles.

So you have to wonder why the Frankfurt-based bank is spending so much of its time fending off lawsuits that accuse it of harassment, retaliation, gender bias and discrimination against pregnant women.

In a lawsuit filed Jan. 28 in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan, Yosefa Shliselberg, a director in the global transaction banking group and 10-year Deutsche Bank veteran, said she was called into human resources one afternoon in 2011 and told, “The business has decided to exit you.” She says it happened two months after she complained to HR about gender discrimination and sexual harassment.

Performance Reviews

Shliselberg, whose performance evaluations cited her “remarkable analytic skills” and “deep understanding” of the bank’s products, told me during an interview last month at her lawyer’s office in New York that the bank had opened an investigation into her effort to start — I’m not kidding — a women’s initiative.

The probe found no wrongdoing, according to her complaint, which would hardly be a shock considering she says she received kudos for her project from everyone from her immediate boss to Deutsche Bank’s former chief executive officer of the Americas: “I’m very proud of you,” Seth Waugh wrote in an e-mail on Feb 11, 2011, that Shliselberg allowed me to review.

After that session in HR, Shliselberg was escorted to her desk, where boxes had already been delivered so she could pack and leave.

You almost wonder if there was something in the water at the bank that can’t do enough to advocate for women. Twelve days before Shliselberg filed her lawsuit, Deutsche Bank fired Heather Zhao, a vice president in Deutsche Bank’s global investment solutions group.

That axing came nine days before Zhao was scheduled to return from maternity leave, according to her complaint filed March 29 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Zhao’s suit says that after she learned she was pregnant in early 2012, she was blanketed with Neanderthal-style remarks from men at the bank. One highlight, according to her complaint: “Maybe I should get pregnant so I can work from home.”

Best place for mothers, indeed.

Deutsche Bank spokeswoman Michele Allison said the bank wouldn’t comment on pending litigation.

Not to pile on, but while we’re on the subject of pregnancy, another employee, Kelley Voelker, was fired from her job as a vice president on the securities-lending desk in September. She said in an amended complaint in U.S. District Court in October that after suing the bank for pregnancy discrimination in September 2011, Deutsche Bank retaliated by firing her. In a response, the bank denied it discriminated or retaliated against Voelker.

Class Act

Deutsche Bank is still in litigation with Voelker, but according to a transcript of a March 18 hearing in her case, two unidentified women who considered starting a class action reached settlements with the bank this year.

Another settlement: Latifa Bouabdillah, a former director in London who sued in May 2011 in the U.K. for sex discrimination. Her lawyer, Tim Johnson, said in an e-mail that the terms were confidential.

As for Shliselberg, I have to wonder if her sorry fate wasn’t somehow related to the dopey public statement of Deutsche Bank’s former CEO Josef Ackermann, who in February 2011 said that the bank’s executive committee would be “more colorful and prettier” once it added a woman or two. Ackermann’s words led to a media maelstrom just as Shliselberg was getting traction for her idea to start a nonprofit group to be called Women in Sovereign Entities.

By the time she was meeting with a bank steering committee in London in April 2011, she was hearing worries that had more than a hint of paranoia: Shliselberg told me one man at the meeting said he was afraid that her proposed group might host an event where women could “get out of control” and take over the agenda.

In its response to a parallel complaint Shliselberg filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Deutsche Bank said she had misinterpreted management’s support for her proposal, and that she had raised her allegations of discrimination as leverage to negotiate a cushy exit package. Shliselberg “began neglecting her work” after she started to focus on creating the women’s organization, the bank said. Deutsche Bank’s decision not to sponsor her project was based on business concerns, not discrimination, according to the response.

It’s hard to buy the idea that the same woman who had been praised in performance evaluations as having “excellent communications skills” somehow went clueless when her bosses were trying to tell her that her project for women was a no-go. If this is the best that the “best” company for women can come up with, the banking industry is even more hopeless than I thought.

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