July 2, 2004
By Desda Moss
Women in Wal-Mart suit forcing change
Sam Walton, the late founder of Wal-Mart, built his empire on
a commitment to community, friendly service and low prices. The
company also has provided jobs for thousands of Americans and
is the world's largest private employer. But it now appears that
some old-fashioned attitudes and an emphasis on low costs may
have permeated its workplace practices.
Last week, a federal judge ruled that a sex-discrimination lawsuit
involving Wal-Mart can go forward. The class-action suit would
be the largest private-employer civil-rights case in U.S. history,
affecting as many as 1.6 million current and former female employees.
According to the judge, the case is based on "largely uncontested"
statistics that show women working at Wal-Mart are paid less than
men in every region and in most job categories; that the gap widens
over time (even for men and women hired into the same jobs at
the same time); and that women take longer to enter management
The case not only affects the female workers who claim discrimination,
but it also could create a backlash among the women, many working-class,
who shop at Wal-Mart and have fed its success.
Judging from the experiences described in court papers by the
six named plaintiffs in the case, old gender stereotypes ran deep:
One woman says her division's monthly sales meetings were held
at a Hooters restaurant.
Another says she asked to be transferred to the hardware department
and was told, "You're a girl. Why do you want to be in hardware?"
One female assistant manager learned that male counterparts were
paid more. When she complained, she was told that men "had
families to support."
The claims against Wal-Mart are not unique. The Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission handled 6,037 wage-discrimination filings
in fiscal 2003. That number has been steady during the past decade.
But by taking on such a giant as Wal-Mart, these women are already
forcing change. Though not acknowledging discrimination, Wal-Mart
adopted a new job structure and pay classifications last month.
Dozens of companies watching the case are reviewing their own
pay scales and employment practices.
Whatever progress our nation makes in ensuring that workers receive
equal pay for equal work, you can be sure it will come as a result
of ordinary women taking extraordinary action. Women who do their
jobs and speak out when they feel that they've been treated unfairly
can change the way we do business.
Desda Moss is a freelance writer in Virginia.