That’s how Brad Seligman described his class-action gender discrimination suit against Wal-Mart to me a few years ago. It’s the largest such suit in American history, representing 1.6 million current and former female employees. Now Seligman is taking on Costco, a retailer with a reputation for treating its employees well. Nonetheless, earlier this month, a federal judge in California granted the suit class-action status, the first major hurdle for a claim of systematic discrimination. “Plaintiffs have presented strong evidence of a common culture at Costco which disadvantages women,” wrote Judge Marilyn Hall Patel.
Among other things, the suit charges that Costco doesn’t post management openings or accept applications, an informal system that gives men the upper hand. Although women make up 45 percent of the company’s work force, only 13 percent are store managers and 17 percent are assistant managers. Costco maintains that women opt out of management positions because they’re burdened by other responsibilities (for more on the opt-out phenomenon, check out Linda Tischler’s FC story Where Are the Women?).
Who is Seligman? He’s the least assuming giant-slayer you’d ever meet. He doesn’t fit the stereotype that critics of class-action litigation paint, that of a greedy, slick, spotlight grabbing, sleazy lawyer. He’s a mild-mannered legal geek who believes the law is a much more effective tool for social change than the student protests he attended in Berkley in the 1970s. He’s also an entrepreneur. Using his share of a $12 million settlement, Seligman started the Impact Fund in 1992. The non-profit doles out grants to support social injustice and environmental suits.
Where does he want to take Wal-Mart and Costco? Simple. In a new direction, where transparency is the norm. Where job openings are posted. Where everyone who’s qualified gets a shot at management training and promotions. If it takes a law suit to get there, so be it.