Equal Pay Act of 1963

Wal-Mart's gender bias case: What's at stake?

April 4, 2011: 12:09 PM ET

The discrimination case, which the Supreme Court is now reviewing, could set a standard for how American companies promote and pay their female workers.

By Elizabeth G. Olson, contributor

FORTUNE -- When it comes to pinpointing how women are faring in today's workplace, there is no shortage of studies, statistics and sharp differences of opinion. But very few, if any, could have as much of an impact on the working lives of American women as the massive discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart Stores, the country's largest employer.

The gender bias case, which the U.S. Supreme Court is now reviewing, could encompass as many as 1.5 million of the giant retailer's female employees who claim to have

Betty Dukes, who started as a Wal-Mart cashier in Pittsburg, Calif. claims that her efforts to advance into a management position were thwarted and even punished with a demotion.

Betty Dukes, who started as a Wal-Mart cashier in Pittsburg, Calif. claims that her efforts to advance into a management position were thwarted and even punished with a demotion.

encountered practices and policies that resulted in lower wages and fewer promotions. And because Wal-Mart (WMT) is such a huge employer, the eventual outcome could set an authoritative standard for how numerous companies pay and promote their female employees.

The justices, though, will not be waving a magic wand to right inequities wholesale. The six men and three women justices will decide sometime before summer begins whether or not the case can go forward as one massive class action suit.

And that depends on how the court views Wal-Mart's actions. If the justices determine that the retailing behemoth's centralized policies and practices could have resulted in less pay and fewer advancement opportunities for female workers, that would clear the way for the women's grievances to be considered together -- a class action suit. Or, the court could decide that the pay and promotion discrepancies resulted from decisions by local managers that affected women individually -- leaving each one to fend for herself legally against Wal-Mart. That would wind up costing Wal-Mart far less than a multi-billion dollar award in a class action lawsuit. More

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