Lorene F. Schaefer says she moved steadily up General Electric’s in-house legal ladder for 13 years, getting praise and stock grants each step along the way. She made it as far as general counsel for GE Transportation.
But this year, she said in an interview, “I bumped up against an absolute glass ceiling into the executive ranks.”
Yesterday Ms. Schaefer, 43, filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court in Connecticut, accusing G.E. of systematically discriminating against women in both pay and promotions. She is seeking to have the suit certified as a class action.
David Sanford, one of her lawyers, said he expected as many as 1,700 women to join the suit and that he was asking for back pay, raises and compensatory damages totaling about $500 million to be distributed among the plaintiffs.
Ms. Schaefer is not sure that many women will sign on. “The women at G.E. are scared to death, so this is the loneliest thing I’ve ever done,” she said.
Ms. Schaefer maintains that G.E. has done a stellar job of helping women migrate up through management. But she said that only 13 percent of G.E.’s officers were women, about the same percentage as six years ago. Moreover, she said that many male general counsels were part of G.E.’s “senior executive band,” the job level just below corporate officer. She said that most female general counsels, including herself, were ranked lower.
“There are women at all levels throughout that corporation who are ready to be promoted, so G.E. can no longer say that it does not have a good feeder pool to tap,” she said.
G.E. disputes her facts as well as her contentions. Gary Sheffer, a G.E. spokesman, said that about $40 billion — about a quarter of G.E.’s annual revenue — came from business units run by women.
He also said that in 2001, when Jeffrey R. Immelt took the helm as G.E. chairman, 17, or 9.3 percent, of G.E.’s 182 corporate officers were women; today, 27, or 14.5 percent, of 186 officers are women. Mr. Immelt is among those named in the suit.
“Her claim that these numbers have remained flat is demonstrably untrue,” Mr. Sheffer said, adding that G.E. will fight the suit.