Few women in corporate America reach the levels that Lorene Schaefer and Theresa Metty attained. Schaefer was general counsel of General Electric's $4.2 billion transportation business. Metty was senior vice president and chief procurement officer at Motorola, with annual compensation near $2 million.
But both women claim they hit the glass ceiling--an invisible barrier blamed for blocking women from realizing their career potential. Faced with demotion, Schaefer filed a class action lawsuit May 31, accusing GE of "systemic, company-wide discriminatory treatment" of female attorneys and managers. Passed over for promotion, demoted and subsequently terminated, Metty claimed Motorola made only "minimal effort to hire or promote women to executive positions." She settled a sex discrimination suit for an undisclosed sum on March 8 as a jury trial was underway.
"Most CEOs are male," says Jane McFetridge, partner in Fisher & Phillips. "And people are more likely to foster and develop someone like themselves. But it's very difficult to prove discrimination."
Now plaintiffs' attorneys are taking a new tact, tapping sociologists to present theories that tie such unconscious bias to discriminatory decisions.
To avoid being the next target, employers must back up fair policies with sound personnel practices at all levels. That includes posting promotion opportunities, writing detailed job descriptions and requiring candid reviews. Putting promotion decisions in the hands of a diverse team also minimizes claims.
"Companies need to look at promotion practices--not just the policies but how the policies are implemented," Jezierski says. She also recommends examining pay rates for men and women at all levels and detailing job duties that impact pay in job descriptions, even though the Supreme Court recently made it more difficult to claim pay discrimination.