Moral Low Ground


U.S. Supreme Court Sides with Wal-Mart in Sex Discrimination Suit

The US Supreme Court has once again ruled in favor of corporations over everyday Americans. Ruling unanimously in Dukes v. Wal-Mart, the nine justices dealt a resounding victory to Wal-Mart and a heavy blow to future class action lawsuits.

The class-action sex discrimination suit against the nation’s largest retailer alleged that women were passed over for promotions and severely underrepresented in company upper management. With 1.6 million plaintiffs, it was the largest class action lawsuit in American history.

Defeated… for now. (Photo: Brave New Films)

The plaintiffs had some very compelling statistics on their side. Although the majority of Wal-Mart managers rise up from hourly wage employees, of which 72% are women, only one third of company managers were women at the time the suit was filed in 2001. Of store managers, only one in ten were women. That figure shrunk to 4% for district managers.

According to their lawsuit, “female representation among managers at Wal-Mart is at a substantially lower level today than among Wal-Mart’s competitors in 1975.”

Truly shocking facts.

But the Court found that the women failed to prove that Wal-Mart denied them equal pay and opportunities for advancement.

Not only did the justices reject the women’s claim, a five-member majority led by Justice Antonin Scalia also established stringent new restrictions on future class action suits. Companies that delegate policies regarding pay and promotions to local managers are no longer responsible for gender disparities unless it can be proven that such imbalances are a result of “a general policy of discrimination.” Also, companies whose policies discriminate against women by denying them equal pay are now entitled to individual hearings for each employee.

Wal-Mart hailed the Court’s decision. The Bentonville, Arkansas-based company issued a statement highlighting its “long history of providing advancement opportunities for our female associates.”

“As the majority made clear, the plaintiff’s claims were worlds away from showing a company-wide discriminatory pay and promotion policy,” Wal-Mart said.

If there is a silver lining to this case, it is that Wal-Mart has made quite an effort to treat women with more equality since the lawsuit was filed a decade ago. The company still has a long way to go, however. According to the Washington Post, there is only one woman among the 11 top executives that report directly to CEO Mike Duke: executive vice president of the company’s people division, Susan Chambers.

The plaintiff’s attorneys say the women will continue to press ahead with their own individual discrimination suits, as well as possible class action suits for individual stores or regions.

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