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ACLU Lens: Wal-Mart, Gender Discrimination, and Class Actions

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January 28, 2011

Dukes v. Wal-Mart is a gender discrimination lawsuit currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case, which is the largest civil rights class action suit in U.S. history, seeks compensation for women employed by Wal-Mart who claim that they were paid less than men employed in similar roles and that they were given less opportunity to advance.

The women argue that, company-wide, Wal-Mart had no system in place to ensure that employees in similar jobs received similar compensation and that mostly-male managers, were allowed to give raises and promotions at their sole discretion, resulting in women being paid lower salaries and given fewer promotions..

The women brought the lawsuit as a class action challenging systematic gender discrimination that they claim affected women working in Wal-Mart stores nationwide. Federal trial and appellate courts permitted the case to go forward as a class action. Wal-Mart, however, is fighting the certification of Dukes as a class action lawsuit, arguing that the class of women is too big and that the women don’t have enough in common to bring a class action..

We believe the decision of the district court and the Ninth Circuit certifying the class action and allowing it to proceed was appropriate. Without this certification, the many women who believe they were discriminated against on the basis of sex while working at Wal-Mart may never get their day in court. It is difficult for individual women to know about, much less challenge, pay disparities and sex discrimination in opportunities for promotion. And some of the practices the women challenge that may have led to the alleged gender disparities are claimed to be common to all Wal-Mart stores, like allowing store managers to make subjective decisions about how much to pay employees and whom to promote.

The case has broad implications for the ability of workers and other civil rights plaintiffs to join forces in a class action to challenge systemic discrimination.

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