Biggest company—biggest bias suit

Biggest company—biggest bias suit – Up Front

Kathryn F. Clark

The company that employs more women than any other in the United States has been hit with what is believed to be the biggest sex discrimination case ever filed against a private employer in this country.

Six female employees of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. filed the class-action suit charging the country’s largest private firm with systematically discriminating against hundreds of thousands of female employees in both Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores.

“This lawsuit marks the D-Day assault that will shatter the glass ceiling for women,” says Joseph M. Sellers, who heads the civil rights practice at Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll in Washington, one of the law firms representing the plaintiffs. He is hopeful a settlement can be worked out.

As many as 700,000 current and former Wal-Mart workers could eventually be a part of the case, according to Brad Seligman of The Impact Fund, a Berkeley, Calif.-based civil rights group that worked on the case.

“There is a company policy and practice across the country of sex discrimination,” says Seligman. “It’s as if the last 25 years of progress for women never happened at Wal-Mart.”

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, charges Wal-Mart with discriminating against female employees in pay, promotion, and training as well as retaliating against those who complained about the alleged abuse. The suit demands a court order directing Wal-Mart to stop its allegedly discriminatory practices and to pay compensation for lost wages.

The plaintiffs claim that although women comprise more than 72 percent of the U.S. Wal-Mart work force of 962,000, men hold 90 percent of store manager positions. Fewer than one-third of store managers are women, far fewer than the

number at major competitors.

The suit also charges Wal-Mart creates a “sexually demeaning atmosphere” for women, who are told women are not good managers,” and “a trained monkey could do their jobs.”

Attorney Sellers says, “Before this, there have been a great number of occasions where women have filed individual sex-harassment cases but none has prompted a systematic reexamination of the company’s treatment of women.” Just a week after the suit was filed, Sellers said, “We’ve talked to hundreds and hundreds of women since who have come forward.”

“A class-action of this magnitude and conduct so egregious call for a major overhaul of personnel policies and practices. It should get the attention of senior management. If they have strong ethics, it should be a wake-up call that’s welcome.”

H. Lee Scott Jr., president and CEO of Wal-Mart, one of the speakers at the U. S. Department of Labor’s 21st Century Workforce Summit a day after the suit was filed, broke into a laundry list of Wal-Mart accomplishments to acknowledge the suit. “We’re not perfect at Wal-Mart,” he said, “but we’re trying.”

Sellers says, “It’s a rare opportunity for senior management–a chance to sit back and try to lay out a strategy for change. It’s a suitable time for them to investigate and make amends, try to change this. If they choose to fight, we are prepared to fight hard.”

Speculating on litigation and the time it would require, he says, “A trial would be enormously disruptive.” He adds, “It’s an enormous suit but it is eminently manageable. To have those hundreds of women file individual suits would be a recipe for chaos.”

Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Ark., reported sales in excess of $191 billion in 2000 and has 3,153 stores in the United States.

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