Thursday, April 7, 2011

Stop Wal-Mart From Discriminating Against Women


Ten years after Betty Dukes and other women workers first brought their claims of sex discrimination in pay and promotions against Wal-Mart, their case will go before the Supreme Court on March 29. 1.6 million women currently and formerly employed at Wal-Mart will be affected by the Court’s determination on whether Wal-Mart’s female employees can join together as a class, to challenge company-wide discrimination. The fair-minded among us will agree that Dukes v. Wal-Mart should be a class action case.

These patterns of discrimination catalogued in the lawsuit are exemplified in the experience of Mary, a 9to5 member and former Wal-Mart worker, who questioned why she was paid thousands of dollars less than a man with less education and the same seniority in the same position. Mary’s daughter, also a Wal-Mart employee, applied for a supervisory job that ended up going to a man because “he had a family to support” – even though she was supporting her family, as well. When Mary inquired about this, she was punished with transfer to a store requiring an hours-long commute.

The case contains thousands of pages of disturbing evidence documenting pervasive gender stereotypes, statistical pay and promotion disparities, and policies that allowed those stereotypes to negatively influence employment decisions affecting women throughout the company. A few examples:

Gender Stereotypes. The documents reveal an ingrained corporate culture that views women as inferior to men, and not interested in career advancement. Among the hundreds of statements detailed in Court documents is a manager telling one employee, “Men are here to make a career and women aren’t. Retail is for housewives who just need to earn extra money.” Another male manager declared, “Women should be home, barefoot and pregnant” – and NOT as a bad joke.

Pay Disparities. The women at Wal-Mart earned less than men, even after accounting for seniority, turnover and performance. In fact, the women had higher performance ratings and more years of employment on average, yet made 5% to 15% less: an average of $5,000 per year less than comparable men.

Promotion Problems. Women received fewer promotional opportunities for in-store management positions, and had to wait longer for the promotions they did receive.

Hiding Discrimination. Despite Wal-Mart's policy prohibiting employees from discussing pay, women discovered they were regularly paid less than male counterparts. A female assistant manager discovered that a less-experienced male assistant manager earned $10,000/year more than she did when someone gave her his misplaced W2. One woman realized that she earned less because “many male associates [at her store] brag[ged] about their pay.”

Retaliation for Complaints. Although Wal-Mart’s “Open Door” policy supposedly allowed employees to air complaints, in reality it “was a fa├žade and resulted only in retaliation,” according to one employee. Another reported that a Wal-Mart Home Office representative told female employees who made complaints of sex and race discrimination, “I can fire you, without taking any steps, for using the [O]pen [D]oor [policy].”

Wal-Mart has long been fueling a race to the bottom through its low standards of wages, benefits and working conditions. The company has been found guilty of numerous wage and hour and overtime violations, unfair labor practices, and absenteeism policies that punish workers for using their paid sick days. This lawsuit could put the brakes on; sending the message to all employers that illegal wage discrimination won’t be tolerated, even if you are the nation’s largest employer.

Evidence strongly suggests that sex discrimination is rampant at Wal-Mart. It can be stopped by a class action resolution to address the company-wide problem. This case will educate the public about employer responsibilities and employee rights in the workplace. All companies, including Wal-Mart, must be fair to all employees – men and women alike.

Linda Meric is the Executive Director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women, a national membership-based organization of low-income women working to improve policies on issues that directly affect them.

Mary Henderson of Canon City, Colorado is a former Wal-Mart assistant manager who is fighting for a better tomorrow for her daughters and 12 granddaughters.

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