'Boss proposed a threesome'

When men sit down in a Hooters restaurant in the United States, they’re probably there for the nubile waitresses in skimpy T-shirts.

Every month, Melissa Howard attended district meetings at Hooters, trying to talk profits and stock volumes while her co-workers focused elsewhere. But as the only woman among 10 store managers at a Wal-Mart store in Indiana, she feared losing her job if she objected.

“I had to listen to the men comment on breasts,” says Howard (36). “Once, I said I didn’t want to be there, and they said, ‘You’re no fun.’ After that, I shut up.’‘

She also kept silent on a trip when two male co-workers insisted on stopping at a strip club. “My manager leaned over and said, ‘Let’s have a threesome out back with a stripper.’ I felt sick.”

Howard wrote to head office listing these and other cases of sexual harassment and discrimination. Despite job ratings that “exceeded expectations’‘, she was paid less than male managers; on complaining, she was offered a transfer. “My manager told me my job was home with my daughter.’‘

Then in 2000 she spotted a newspaper advertisement. “Attention: present and former female employees of Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club. Have you been denied opportunities in management? Are you tired of seeing new hires or less qualified men promoted over you? Have you been denied equal pay for equal work? Do you get the runaround about promotions or raises? Are you stuck in a dead-end job?’‘

She immediately contacted the legal firm behind the advertisement, the Impact Fund, an anti-discrimination organisation based in California.

Last month, after studying 200 depositions and combing 1,25-million pages of evidence, US District Judge Martin Jenkins certified the discrimination claim of 1,5-million past and present female employees, making Dukes et al v Wal-Mart Stores the largest civil rights case in US history.

“Women working at Wal-Mart stores are paid less than men in every region,’’ the judge wrote. “Pay disparities exist in most job categories, the salary gap widens over time, women take longer to enter management positions, and the higher one looks in the organisation, the lower the percentage of women.’‘

Last week Wal-Mart’s lawyers asked a federal appeals court for a review, alleging the action had been unfairly aggregated to include all stores. They also released sworn statements by women employees attesting to successful promotion efforts. Next week lawyers from the seven US firms representing the women will contest a review.

Wal-Mart is one of the US’s richest and biggest employers. Sales last year were $254-billion, with profits of $8-billion. It owns 3 566 stores in the US, employing 1,2-million people, two-thirds women.

Selling everything from tampons to shotguns, it is the only place many Americans shop. But more than a million former female employees say the Arkansas-based company still harbours an outmoded “Southern’’ attitude to women.

Since Judge Jenkins’s decision, more female employees have come forward to detail pay discrimination and harassment. “We’ve spoken to 2 000 women and it increases every day,’’ says attorney Joseph Sellers. “Wal-Mart is in a time warp, 30 to 40 years out of date. We’re told managers said they first had to look after men, because they had families to support. Wal-Mart’s own data reveals that, on average, women were paid $1 400 a year less than men, and female managers $14 000 less.

“Wal-Mart locates where there aren’t many alternative jobs. This is a case about control, about men favouring their friends and disfavouring women.’‘

Sandra Stevenson (50) says she soon discovered Wal-Mart subsidiary Sam’s Club was a chauvinist bastion. “We called it the Boys’ Club. It was all male managers with no interest in helping women get into management.’‘

Ramona Scott (41), a personnel manager in a Florida Wal-Mart from 1990 to 1998, said a new manager had laughed at her pay, saying a man doing her job in his old store made much more, but recommended no increase. When she applied for management training, there were no openings. “He said if I wanted to get along with him I had to be more like his wife — get his coffee, and so on.’‘

Last month’s judgement noted women were told to “doll up’’ and wear low-cut shirts. Scott said she felt powerless to complain.

Wal-Mart says the ruling had no bearing on the merits of the case. Said spokesperson Mona Williams: “Judge Jenkins is simply saying the case meets the legal requirements for a class action. We strongly disagree.’’

The company recently announced a new job classification and pay structure for hourly paid employees. “First they deny doing wrong, now they make changes,’’ Howard comments.

She says she doesn’t care about damages, but wants to see Wal-Mart squirm. “I just want things to change.’‘

Scott agrees. “I don’t want money. I’m doing this for the women still there.’’ — Â

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