Ex-ABA employee sues group, alleging discrimination

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WASHINGTON – An ex-employee of the American Bankers Association is accusing the trade group and some of its executives of allegedly creating a “boy’s club” atmosphere that discriminated against women and minorities on staff, denying them an equal opportunity to move up in the organization.

Christine Walika, who rose to become an executive vice president at the ABA, filed a lawsuit last week that claims she witnessed discriminatory and verbally abusive behavior by certain executives during her more than 25 years at the trade group. The lawsuit alleges that when she raised concerns about that behavior “she became the target of hostile treatment and retaliation, was denied promotion, and ultimately fired.”

“Although ABA markets itself as an organization that supports the advancement of women and people of color within the banking industry, behind the scenes at ABA, women and minorities are subjected to systemic discrimination and a culture of fear designed to deter them from reporting discrimination or otherwise advocating for equal opportunity,” the lawsuit says.

In a statement, Jeff Sigmund, the ABA’s senior vice president of public relations, denied the allegations.

"We are proud of the positive workplace our employees have created together at ABA and are gratified that we have been certified by independent reviewers as a great place to work,” he said. “Our staff know that harassment and discrimination are not tolerated at ABA. We are confident a careful review of the facts in this case will show this claim has no merit."

The 25-page complaint includes both accusations that Walika herself was denied opportunities for advancement and that she witnessed discriminatory actions against other women. In one case cited several times in the lawsuit, Walika claims the ABA improperly denied a female executive’s promotion, elevating a male executive in her stead.

The complaint also more broadly alleges that women are underrepresented in the ABA’s ranks, noting it has never been led at the staff level by a woman in its 143-year history. The group has been led by female chairman, including Betsy Duke, who is now chairman of Wells Fargo. On Tuesday, Laurie Stewart, president and CEO of Sound Community Bank, is slated to become chairman-elect of ABA, which means she will serve as chairman with a term beginning in late 2019.

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