Whose got the lower glass ceiling: Wal-Mart or Home Depot? We’ll find out eventually, as Wal-Mart is now forced to respond to a sex discrimination lawsuit that rivals one filed against Home Depot in the 1990s. In September of 1997, Home Depot announced that a federal District Court Judge in New Orleans had approved a settlement agreement in a gender discrimination lawsuit that cost Home Depot a staggering $104 million. Home Depot was required to make $17 million worth of internal improvements to its human resources programs. “We are committed to putting these lawsuits behind us,” said Home Depot’s President at the time. Now it’s Wal-Mart’s turn, as the major new media all carried the story that six women have sued Wal-Mart on June 19th., charging the company with systematically discriminating against hundreds of thousands of female “associates” in Wal-Mart and Sam’s Clubs nationwide. “It’s as if the last 25 years of progress for women never happened at Wal-Mart,” said Brad Seligman of The Impact Fund, a Berkeley, Calif.-based civil rights group that helped create what is believed to be the largest sex discrimination case ever filed against a private U.S. employer, according to the Reuters news service. “There is a company policy and practice across the country of sex discrimination,” Seligman told Reauters.As many as 700,000 current and former Wal-Mart employees could eventually be a part of the case if it is given class action status. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, charges Wal-Mart with discriminating against female employees in pay, promotion and training, and with retaliating against women employees who complain about the alleged abuse. A Wal-Mart spokesman said the company rejected the charge of systematic discrimination, and was confident it would win in court. “Wal-Mart does not condone discrimination of any kind,” the spokesman told Reuters. “The record is clear that there is no systematic practice of discrimination at Wal-Mart.” The suit demands a court order directing Wal-Mart to stop its allegedly discriminatory practices as well as compensation for lost wages for hundreds of thousands of women affected — potentially making it one of the largest sex discrimination suits ever filed. Home Depot paid $104 million to settle its lawsuit, and Lucky Stores, a California-based grocer, in 1995 paid $107 million to settle a sex discrimination case that covered just 14,000 employees, while Texaco paid $176 million to settle a racial discrimination complaint that applied to a class of just 1,400 former employees. Three current and former employees at Wal-Mart and its affiliated Sam’s Club stores appeared at Tuesday’s news conference to outline what they said was a pattern of discrimination at Wal-Mart. “There have been numerous occasions that I have been aware of over the last seven years where men have been favored over women for positions,” “There’s a great divide between the women and the men at Wal-Mart,” said Betty Dukes, a Wal-Mart employee from Pittsburg, Calif. and one of the named plaintiffs in the case. “Today I’m speaking out and I hope the women in my store and everywhere else will have the courage and no longer accept the treatment that we’ve been subjected to.” The women say that although women comprise over 72 percent of the U.S. Wal-Mart workforce of 962,000, men account for 90 percent of Wal-Mart store manager positions. The company’s global workforce numbers more than 1.24 million. Less than one-third of store management overall at Wal-Mart is female — a percentage far lower than the number of female managers employed by Wal-Mart’s major competitors, the suit charges. Wal-Mart responds that these numbers are misleading, noting that unlike some of its competitors, Wal-Mart does not categorize department managers as “management” because they are not salaried employees. “If we did include these, our overall percentage would probably be closer to 50 percent,” a company spokesman told Reuters. “The point is, we don’t systematically discriminate against women at Wal-Mart. Have there been individual instances of discrimination? Yes, we’re not a perfect company. But that’s not what is at issue here.” The suit also charges that Wal-Mart creates a “sexually demeaning atmosphere” for women employees, who are told that ”women do not make good managers,” and “a trained monkey” could do their jobs, a news release said. Wal-Mart employs more women than any other company in the United States.
Wal-Mart’s response that it “does not condone discrimination of any kind” and that they are confident of winning in court, is reminiscent of Home Depot’s defensive comments when they were hit with a similar class action lawsuit. “We are very proud of our record of hiring and promoting women to every level in the company,” Home Depot said at the time. We are fully confident that the truth will ultimately be realized by all — that there is no better place for women and men to work than the Home Depot.” If you open these companies’ personnel policies, it says they will not discriminate against an associate with regard to race, age, sex, etc. Yet Home Depot ended up paying out $104 million and trying to “put these lawsuits behind us.” This case, if it is not settled quickly, could bring out some very revealing data about Wal-Mart’s workforce that the company may be hesitant to talk about: like how many of its workers leave each year, and what various classes of employees are paid. Look for a settlement in this case, and many observers seem to think it could be for a Guinness Book of Records amount.