When Betty Dukes decided in 2001 to take on the world’s largest retailer, Walmart Stores, Inc., she first thought she would be a lone soldier.
Yet as the years have passed, more than 9,500 women openly have stepped forward to join Dukes in a nine-year crusade to thwart alleged persistent discrimination against Walmart’s female employees in pay and promotions. The fight has become the largest gender-bias class-action lawsuit in U.S. history — representing about 1.6 million former and current female employees and possibly costing the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer billions of dollars.
At first, “I found myself standing alone, but I wasn’t standing alone,” says Dukes, 60, who joined the retailer’s Pittsburgh, Calif., store in 1994 as a part-time cashier for $5 an hour.
Dukes, a native of Tallulah, La., saw the job as a chance to better her life by climbing the corporate management ladder at Walmart, she says. But in 1997, by which time she had advanced to the level of customer service manager, she found out that each step beyond that point was becoming steeper — and more frustrating. The company, she says, offered her little chance for advancement. She went to her many managers to complain, though that turned into an ongoing quarrel and eventually led to a demotion to cashier and pay cut of about 5 percent, she says.
Her struggle became central to the federal lawsuit, filed in June 2001 in the U.S. District Court. In late April 2010, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a decision allowing the case to go to trial as a class action on behalf of the millions of former and current female Walmart employees — which the suit says represent 72 percent of all hourly employees.
Dukes and the five other main plaintiffs charged in the suit that Walmart violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The retailer consistently paid its male employees more than women for the same work, and women have had to wait longer than men for promotions, they maintain.
The lawsuit claims that women account for only one-third of what Walmart considers management. At the store level, they hold “traditionally ‘female’ positions, such as assistant managers whose primary responsibility is supervising cashiers, and the lowest level of managers.”
A Climb Too Steep
Dukes came to Walmart with 20 years of retail experience, working at chain stores such as Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway, Inc. “I was definitely familiar with the retailing industry, and I had the basic skills,” she says, adding that she had never faced any problems in her prior jobs.
Her troubles at Walmart began just a few months after she was promoted to be a customer service manager in 1997, she says. “It was a combination of things,” she says.