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Smith Barney's Woman Problem

A class action alleges bias against female employees

Shortly after Pamela K. Martens began work as a stockbroker trainee at Shearson/American Express Co. in 1985, she got a taste of things to come. One day she went into the office of her branch manager, Nicholas Cuneo, to ask a question. Cuneo casually opened his desk drawer, took out a gun, and laid it down in front of him. As she hurriedly left his office, Martens concluded that Cuneo was sending her a message, loud and clear: I'm someone to fear. When Martens complained to another manager, he downplayed the incident, saying, "Oh, Nick just does that to intimidate the trainees."

Over the next 10 years at the New York firm's Garden City (N.Y.) branch, Martens endured a noxious atmosphere that favored Cuneo's cadre of male brokers and was hostile to women, says Martens. To Martens and other women in the branch interviewed by BUSINESS WEEK, Cuneo was a bully who had perfected the art of "intimidation, retaliation, and humiliation," as Martens puts it. "This man ran a fiefdom for 25 years with the most flagrant abuse of power with impunity."