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Walmart just got hit with a major gender discrimination lawsuit

Walmart won a Supreme Court gender discrimination case in 2011. Now women are suing the company again.

A Walmart store in Miami on February 19, 2015.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In 2001, Lisa Youman wanted a job promotion at Walmart.

Youman, now 55, had climbed the Walmart ladder. She joined the company in 1987 as a sales associate at a Tallahassee, Florida, store before working her way up to department manager, and then to support manager. She wanted to become store manager and believed she was well-positioned to land the job.

Instead, Youman was passed over in favor of a lower-ranking male co-worker with less retail experience.

It wasn’t the first or the second time she’d lost a promotion to a man who didn’t have as much experience, and so she brought it up with her boss. Youman was eventually told she wasn’t chosen because she was a woman. Specifically, the job she wanted involved moving furniture, she was told, and required strength only a man could have.

“My response to them was that if I needed something to be moved and I couldn’t do it, I could always ask someone, but it didn’t matter to them because it was then something else,” Youman told Vox recently. “They also told me I was ‘overqualified.’ From then, it was clear to me how hard it was to be a woman at Walmart.”

Youman never got her store manager promotion, and after being demoted the following year, she left the company for good in 2003. Now she is one of nearly 100 women who are part of a gender discrimination lawsuit against Walmart. The lawsuit, filed February 1, states that the country’s largest employer is guilty of abuse and discrimination, withholding raises and promotions from female employees. Some of these accusations date back to the ’90s and 2000s, but plaintiffs say the problems in the suit still plague Walmart.

A history of gender discrimination at Walmart

This is not the first time Walmart has been accused of gender discrimination.

In 2001, a Walmart employee named Betty Dukes filed a class-action lawsuit against the retailer, claiming that she and many other women at Walmart were regularly passed over for raises and promotions. Dukes’s case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, but Wal-Mart Stores Inc. v. Dukes was dismissed in 2011 for being too expansive. Although Dukes’s case was tossed, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that Dukes had shown “gender bias suffused Walmart’s corporate culture.” When Dukes died in 2017, an obituary in the New York Times wrote that she “helped draw attention to the working conditions of low-paid workers in so-called big box stores that dominate the retail landscape.”

Youman and many of the other women in the current lawsuit were originally part of the class that filed with Dukes in 2001. But after Dukes’s case was dismissed, their claims were left pending with the federal government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In November 2018, they were granted the right to sue, which is why these women are coming forward now — and they have a litany of complaints. Their claims say Walmart violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids companies to discriminate against employees based on their race, religion, ethnicity, or sex.

Attorneys from Scott Wagner and Associates are representing the employees, all of whom are from Florida. They say the firm is with working with dozens of other women in states like Ohio and California who plan to file similar suits against Walmart this year.

The women involved in the Florida suit now are seeking damages, but they also want to hold the company accountable for what they say are decades of systematic persecution.

Two women restock a display at a Walmart store as they prepare for Black Friday shoppers on November 24, 2015, in Miami.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“I want Walmart to admit that they were not promoting women at one point in time, and I want the women there now to know they should be getting their fair share,” Youman says. “Women should be able to advance based on their work history and knowledge, on the same terms as the men.”

In a statement to Vox, Walmart media relations specialist LeMia Jenkins said:

Walmart has had a strong policy against discrimination in place for many years and we continue to be a great place for women to work and advance. The allegations from these plaintiffs are not representative of the positive experiences that millions of women have had working at Walmart. We’ve said all along that if someone believes they have been treated unfairly, they deserve to have their timely, individual claims heard in court. We plan to defend the company against these claims.

Women say Walmart systematically kept them out of management positions

While today, most headlines that talk about a retail giant taking over the world are usually about Amazon, Walmart is actually the largest retailer in the world.

With more than 11,000 stores around the globe, Walmart earns $500.3 billion annually. It employs about 2.2. million people worldwide, and 1.5 million in the US alone.

That Walmart is such a massive employer is what appeals to many retail associates. The company makes it easy for applicants to apply for jobs by not requiring prior job experience or résumés. It also offers training for workers, which furthers career development.

Retail workers are also often attracted to Walmart because the company encourages associates to be hands-on with customers. This is the main reason Linda Medin, a 67-year-old Palm Beach, Florida, resident took a job at Walmart in 1991.

“Walmart was known to value people,” she said. “They had this ideal that a store could have great products at a great price, and would make a customer feel like they could come in and get taken care of. I wanted to be a part of that.”

Youman, too, said she liked working for Walmart, and wanted to succeed there. But both women found that when it came to moving up, there was a ceiling on how high they could rise. Walmart, they now say, is a company that methodically relegates women in retail to the lower-ranking and lower-earning jobs.

“When women start out at the company, they are always given positions as cashiers, or in softlines, like clothing, where you don’t have much of a sales opportunity,” Youman says. “It’s hard to be stuffed into positions like that. Men are more likely to get placed in sporting goods or tech, and those departments have a high volume in sales, which is what managers are looking for.”

Medin says that, like Youman, she and many other women at her store in Palm Beach, Florida, were constantly passed over for job promotions, which were instead given to male colleagues, many of whom had less experience.

“If you weren’t a guy, you couldn’t move forward,” Medin said. “It was a boys’ world. When I brought this up the line, I was told to keep doing a great job, but that’s all I heard.”

Cathleen Scott, a partner at Scott Wagner and Associates, categorizes their experience as disparate treatment, a type of workplace discrimination that’s illegal under US labor law.

“Promotional opportunities are not the same for men and women at Walmart,” Scott says. “It’s gender stereotyping when women are more likely to get hired as cashiers while men get to work in high-grossing areas.”

According to the lawsuit filing, many other women have similar experiences to Youman and Medin, where they were passed on promotions because of their gender. Lisa Rohdy, a Brevard County, Florida, resident, worked at Walmart from 1991 to 2002. When she asked her manager if she could join the company’s manager training program, she was told she “was not cut out for the position” since she “had children.” Instead, according to the lawsuit paperwork, Rohdy watched several male colleagues with store experience get promoted. Sometime later, when she was pregnant, her manager, who was a man, asked her “why can’t you be like those Vietnamese women who have a baby, drop it, and keep working.”

Korby Miller, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, worked for Walmart in both Arizona and Florida from 2000 to 2006. She worked her way up to department manager, but watched as several male colleagues with inferior rankings got promoted above her. When she raised the issue with her manager, she was told to deal with it “on her own because she was a big girl.”

Medin recalls that it wasn’t just that women wouldn’t get the promotion they applied for. There were also specific management training programs that women weren’t given access to.

“Basically, you would just find out one day that so-and-so was promoted to district manager because he had finished going through a training program you didn’t even know was available,” Medin said. “It was a very different system for men. They were given training that us girls never heard about.”

Scott, the attorney, says there’s tons of evidence that shows that Walmart, as a corporation, didn’t offer these type of programs to everyone.

“This is a systemic discrimination problem,” she says. “There’s no procedural avenue to advance women, and so that allowed subjectivity to come into the workplace. That meant men hiring and promoting men.”

“Compound that with the belief some of these managers held that women don’t belong in management, and you get a system that doesn’t allow for the advancement of women,” Scott continued.

Accusations of a pay gap at Walmart

In addition to allegedly being kept down in the ranks, women suing Walmart also say they were paid less than their male co-workers.

According to the lawsuit, many of the women were hourly employees, and Walmart district managers “had ultimate authority over whether, and by how much, to adjust the pay of hourly employees.”

Customers shop inside a Walmart Supercenter store on May 30, 2013, in Pico Rivera, California.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The suit also contends that managers had to keep a record of the payment of hourly and salaried employees, and “therefore had knowledge of the compensation discrimination present in the stores over which they had authority.”

Both Medin and Youman told Vox that they learned over their time at Walmart that men at the company in the same or lower positions as them were making more money.

“Walmart has a policy which pays women less than man,” said Lindsey Wagner, another attorney on the case. “They don’t sit down and say it, but we have statistical evidence for the positions women are assigned to, the numbers don’t add up.”

Several plaintiffs said that Walmart’s employee handbook included a rule that employees were not allowed to discuss their payment with fellow employees (although this is common at workplaces, it’s actually illegal under the National Labor Relations Act). This created an environment of secrecy. Workers told Wagner and Scott that employees were penalized if they shared their salary details, and so people were often afraid to discuss wages with one another.

Still, women did learn they made less than their male colleagues. In one position Youman held, she saw her associates’ paychecks and noticed the discrepancy.

“Even though I thought it was unfair, the only thing I could do was shake my head,” she said. “I wasn’t allowed to tell [a] woman that the guy next to her was making $2 more than her.”

Medin says she decided to leave Walmart in 2010 after failing to move up and learning about the company’s pay gap.

“It devalued us,” she said of getting paid less than male colleagues. “I was tired of playing games. You start to lose your self-esteem. That stays with you for a long time.”

Walmart has taken some measures over the years related to the allegations these women have made. It introduced a new system for payment and promotions for all employees in 2004, and it raised its minimum wage to $11 in 2018.

Walmart also pledged to make diversity a core focus in 2011, after its workplace lawsuit with Dukes ended up at the Supreme Court. It started a global women’s economic empowerment initiative that year, and in its annual reports, it states that it’s working toward “fostering a trust-based inclusive environment.” Last year, Walmart also promoted two women to executive positions.

But Scott says the issues of discrimination still run deep at Walmart: “Sadly, our clients’ experiences at Walmart are not unique. They are strikingly similar to hundreds of other female employees of Walmart nationwide.”

“This suit is going to make a statement for everyone, not just for Walmart,” adds Medin. “It’s for all companies that don’t think a woman can do the same job as a man, or get paid the same. Things have to change.”

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