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It’s bad enough when your company is accused of widespread sex discrimination in a class action. It’s even worse when the plaintiff is one of your top in-house lawyers, the suit targets your legal department and your company holds itself up as a model of good management. But that’s the situation in which General Electric Co. finds itself. Lorene Schaefer, the general counsel of its transportation division, filed a class action against the conglomerate on May 31 in federal district court in New Haven, Conn. She claims that more than 1,000 female lawyers and executives at GE have been subject to “systemic, companywide discriminatory treatment,” including lower pay and fewer promotions. Her action seeks $500 million in damages for the class. One of Schaefer’s specific claims is that GE fails to promote women on a four-step career ladder at a rate equal to men. There are four levels, or “bands,” as GE calls them, on the ladder � senior professional, executive, senior executive and officer. Schaefer claims that the percentage of women in the top two bands has remained stagnant for the past five years � 20% for senior executives, and 13% for officers. “They let you into the executive band ranks,” she said, “but when you want to rise to senior executive band or officer of the corporation, there is a strong glass ceiling.” Schaefer’s suit offers herself as a prime example. Of the seven general counsel at the company, both of the women (including Schaefer) are in the executive band, while all five of the male GCs are in the senior executive or officer band. In April, GE told Schaefer that it was demoting her and that she’d lose the GC title, according to her complaint. After filing suit, Schaefer, 43, was placed on paid administrative leave. The fact that such a high-level lawyer is bringing the suit makes it especially compelling, according to Brooklyn Law School Professor Elizabeth Schneider. “That’s unusual,” said Schneider, who writes about civil rights. “The case raises serious questions for GE.” Brackett Denniston, GE’s corporate general counsel, said that the company strongly disagrees with Schaefer’s allegations. He insists that Schaefer’s suit isn’t all that worrisome or unusual for such a large business. And he said that the number of minorities and women in the legal department has consistently increased since he became GE’s legal chief in 2004. Referring to the struggle to increase diversity among the company’s 1,225 in-house lawyers, Denniston said, “It’s moving a big boat pretty fast. But you can always do better, and we’ll continue to try.”

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