What do 1.5 million women have in common? They work or worked for Wal-Mart, and are currently eligible for a class action discrimination lawsuit that would be the biggest in history. Wal-Mart just asked the Supreme Court to prevent that.
Nine years ago, lawyers noticed that "just a third of Wal-Mart's managers were women even though two-thirds of its employees were." They found six women who had concrete experience with discrimination, including one who, when she asked why a man in the same job as her was making $23,000 more a year, was told, "Stephanie, that assistant manager has a family and two children to support." She herself was a single mother with a six-month-old child.
According to the lawsuit, overall, women at Wal-Mart earn 5% to 15% less than men in the same jobs. Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in the country, and in 25 states, the biggest employer overall.
The case has since traveled its way up the judicial system, most recently with a Ninth Circuit decision in April that upheld the class action status, allowing any or all 1.5 million female Wal-Mart employees to join the case and moving the focus away from individual injury.
The dissent in that decision complained that all female Wal-Mart employees "have little in common but their sex and this lawsuit," because they "held a multitude of jobs, at different levels of Wal-Mart's hierarchy, for variable lengths of time, in 3,400 stores, sprinkled across 50 states, with a kaleidoscope of supervisors (male and female), subject to a variety of regional policies that all differed depending on each class member's job, location and period of employment."
If the plaintiffs get their way, Wal-Mart could face up to $1 billion in damages, so obviously it would tend to agree. Per The New York Times:
In its filing, Wal-Mart argued that while a class action might be appropriate for plaintiffs seeking changes to the retailer's behavior, the status was improper for seeking monetary damages.
The company said the complaints of the seven women were not typical of the more than one million women who have worked at Wal-Mart in the last decade. In a statement Wednesday, Wal-Mart said that it "has been recognized as a leader in fostering the advancement and success of women in the workplace."
But the plaintiffs' lawyers said there was nothing unusual about how the women had been classified, and the group was gigantic because Wal-Mart is gigantic.
The Supreme Court has to decide whether to hear the case, which could happen next year.