Walmart sex-discrimination case has profound implications

A 60-year-old Walmart employee came up against the world’s biggest retailer this week in another round of the largest sex discrimination case in history.

In a case legal experts say will redefine discrimination law in the United States, the supreme court has begun hearing arguments why Betty Dukes and more than a million women who worked for Walmart between December 1998 and the present day should be able to sue the retailer in a class action.

Walmart is appealing against an earlier court’s decisions to let the case proceed after a judge said Dukes’s lawyers had presented “significant proof of a corporate policy of discrimination”. Walmart, which is America’s largest private employer, says the case has spun out of control and threatens to cost the retailer billions if it is allowed to proceed.

The firm denies wrongdoing and argues that the accusations are too numerous and too diverse to be tried en masse. Twenty firms, including General Electric and Microsoft, have filed papers with the court in support of Walmart. The case began in 2000 when Dukes filed a sex discrimination suit, claiming she had been denied the training she needed to receive promotion.

Civil rights lawyer Brad Seligman, representing Dukes, claims Walmart systematically discriminated against female employees, who were under-represented in management positions and were paid less than male colleagues. In salaried positions, Seligman argues, women comprise 37,6% of assistant managers, 21,9% of co-managers and 15,5% of store managers. Figures from 2001 show that it took women an average 4,38 years from the date they were hired to be promoted to assistant manager, compared with 2,86 years for men.

The court’s decision is likely to have a profound impact on other groups of women bringing sex discrimination suits against employers in the US, says Melissa Hart, the director of the Byron R White centre for the study of American constitutional law at the University of Colorado. Hart says a loss would “make it increasingly difficult for women to challenge discrimination in the workplace”.

Should the courts rule in Dukes’s favour lawyers expect a new set of discrimination class actions to be brought, not just on behalf of women but also for minorities or people with disabilities. A win for Walmart would be a big blow for job-bias cases, making it harder to argue that employees who work in different stores and hold different jobs have enough in common to be a class. — Guardian News & Media 2011

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