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Women Recount Pervasive Inequality at Wal-Mart

June 23, 2004|Nancy Cleeland | Times Staff Writer

Her name is Betty Dukes. A decade ago, she took a job as a cashier at the Wal-Mart in the Bay Area suburb of Pittsburg, with high hopes of a career in management.

That dream died fast. She said she was passed over for promotion time and again -- usually in favor of men with less store experience.

Dukes, an ordained Baptist minister, said she was convinced that what was happening to her was wrong, and illegal. So she fought back.

Now she is the lead plaintiff in a historic lawsuit against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. that, under a ruling issued Tuesday, will proceed as the largest class action ever certified in a civil rights employment case.

"I felt I was being victimized by the system, and I couldn't let it happen," Dukes said Tuesday from her attorneys' offices in Berkeley. "I've always said if you do nothing, you can expect nothing."

She still works at the Wal-Mart in Pittsburg, though now as a greeter, waving customers into the store with a smile. Dukes sees no contradiction: She still believes in the promise of a Wal-Mart career. In fact, sometimes she sounds more like a publicist for the company than one of its most famous detractors.

"I'm hoping to be there till my days of retirement," said Dukes, 54. "Wal-Mart is the largest company in the world. It's huge in my community. It employs people from all walks of life. It allows me to have an honest and forthright living and to stay active in my spiritual life. I never have to work on Sundays."

Dukes is among six named plaintiffs -- five from California -- and one of more than 1.5 million women who attorneys allege were injured to some degree by Wal-Mart policies.

More than 100 of the women have signed sworn statements filed in conjunction with the suit that describe an atmosphere of pervasive sexism, in which male managers didn't think twice of holding staff meetings at Hooters restaurants, or of justifying higher pay for men because they had to support families.

One was a college graduate who was so stunned by allegedly discriminatory treatment that she wrote a note to Wal-Mart Chief Executive H. Lee Scott Jr., who never responded, she said in her statement. Another was a mid-level supervisor in Tennessee who said she had to train a man to take the higher-level job she had actively sought.

A third was an ambitious 19-year-old who moved from Alabama to Anchorage in her quest to become manager but quit disappointed 15 years later; she knew it was fruitless, she said in her statement, after a manager told her and a roomful of Wal-Mart employees that "the only reason Wal-Mart needed female assistant managers was to ensure that women associates had someone with whom they could discuss their periods."

The names and locations vary, but the complaints are consistent: lower pay for women in comparable jobs; inadequate training and coaching for aspiring managers; a word-of-mouth hiring network that made it difficult for women to learn about open positions; and dismissive, even crude, remarks by male managers. A few alleged that they were groped or sexually harassed in other ways.

Statistics compiled by plaintiffs' attorneys, based on payroll records submitted by Wal-Mart and which the judge found credible, show that on average, men earned more than women in each job category.

In higher management positions, the difference was extreme. For instance, in 2001, male store managers on average earned $105,682, while women earned $89,280. Male district managers earned $239,519 that year, while women in the same position earned $177,149.

The numbers also put Wal-Mart far below the retail average, at least when it comes to promoting women. The attorneys claim that overall, in general merchandise stores, about 60% of management positions are held by women. At Wal-Mart, the number is only about 35%.

But despite their grievances, some of the women share another common theme -- they still want to work for Wal-Mart.

Of the six named plaintiffs, two are current Wal-Mart employees: Dukes in Pittsburg and Christine Kwapnoski in Concord, Calif., where she manages the bakery at a Sam's Club.

Others who signed statements said they would return to Wal-Mart if conditions changed. They include Gina Espinoza-Prize, fired from a Lakeside, Calif., store after she had worked up to a mid-level position in the one-hour photo division.

"I believe that I was terminated for complaining about sexual harassment, and because I am a woman who wanted to be promoted within Wal-Mart," she wrote in her statement. But "I would be willing to consider returning to Wal-Mart if I could be assured that policies that afford equal opportunities for women to advance in the company would be fairly enforced."

For Betty Dukes, conditions have improved. She became a greeter after carpal tunnel injuries kept her from working as a cashier. The job is a step down, but that hasn't stopped Wal-Mart from offering generous raises. At the time the suit was filed, Dukes made less than $8 an hour. Now, three years later, she is earning $12.53.

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