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Profession rocked by sex pest case

A female architect who claims colleagues called her 'the bitch' and told her to wear skirts rather than trousers to show off her legs, is to take legal action against her employer in a potential landmark case for the profession.

The woman, who cannot be named, worked as the principal architect in a local authority architects department and alleges that she was the butt of horrific sexist taunts from her boss (a RIBA architect), a quantity surveyor and a clerk of works. She is suing for loss of earnings after leaving for a lower-paid job in private practice.

The architect claims that her boss once asked why her nipples were visible through her clothes and that he told her that he liked to position her in the office so he could brush against her body. These incidents came after she had turned down his request for an affair.

On a separate occasion she says that she overheard a conversation between the QS and clerk of works when the QSasked, 'have you seen the bitch?' to which the clerk replied, 'the bitch is over there'.When she remarked to the QSthat she was feeling ill, he said 'you're bloody pregnant, that's your problem'. She was not pregnant. She recorded each instance of harassment in a notebook, complete with dates and times. The evidence will be presented at an employment tribunal later this year and the names of the complainant and the local authority will remain under wraps until then.

The case looks set to test the anti-discrimination policies of the ARB and the RIBA. If the tribunal finds in her favour, both bodies are likely to call the accused architect before their own disciplinary committees so they can decide whether to strike him off. It would be the first sexual harassment case ever heard by the ARB, whose new code of conduct includes the phrase, 'architects should at all times act with integrity'.

'If the chairman of the tribunal makes derogatory remarks about the professional conduct of the architects then we'd get involved, ' said the ARB's h e ad o f re g u l a t i on , Richard Coleman. Experienced RIBA disciplinary committee chairman Jim Cuthbertson said the institute's code of conduct demands respect for 'the legitimate rights and interests of others'.He could not recall a sexual harassment case being heard by the institute.

The case emerged after the distressed architect sought support from Architects for Change, the RIBA's new anti-discrimination initiative. The group has received 20 separate complaints of discrimination against either gender, race or disability since it launched one month ago (AJ 3.8.00), according to chairwoman Sumita Sinha.

'She said there were posters of naked women on the office walls - nasty soft porn, ' an enraged Sinha said. It's really not something you would expect from a local authority. These are the people making aesthetic judgements about buildings.'

The architect left her job and the council's grievance procedure failed to find in her favour.

'The grievance procedure was completely ineffective, even though the council had an equal opportunities policy, ' Sinha said. 'We want to ask practices with equal opportunity policies to demonstrate how well they are working.'

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