The country's largest private employer, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., is being sued by a number of its female employees who claim they were kept out of jobs in management because they are women.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Francisco, accuses the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer of a systematic pattern of discrimination against women.
While only six women are named in the complaint, the suit seeks class-action status to collect damages for more than 700,000 current and former female employees of Wal-Mart. If certified, a class action would make this the biggest suit ever filed against a private employer and could mean monetory damages of hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as punitive damages.
Trying to Shatter a "Glass Ceiling"
"I guess you could say I was Walmatized," says Stephanie Odle. "I gave up my nights, my days, my weekends, my holidays. Time and again the jobs I should have had were given to men."
Odle is part of the lawsuit that charges Wal-Mart with "denying female employees equal job assignments, promotions, training and compensation."
A Wal-Mart spokesman told ABCNEWS the retailer doesn't condone any kind of discrimination and that the company's policy is to promote the best people to available positions.
But the plaintiffs hope this lawsuit will change the way they say Wal-Mart treats its women employees.
"Wal-Mart has operated the largest glass ceiling for its women employees in the country and we want to shatter it," says Joe Sellers, an attorney representing the plaintiffs. "We want to dismantle the procedures and practices by which Wal-Mart has kept its female employees from getting promoted."
Employee of the Year Never Promoted
Kimberly Miller, one of the plaintiffs in the case, says she worked for nine years at a Wal-Mart store in Ocala, Fla., without ever receiving a promotion.
"I received employee-of-the-month twice," Miller says, "and employee of the year once, in 1995. And still, I never received a promotion."
Like any big-box retailer, Wal-Mart has seen its share of lawsuits. Since Sam Walton founded the company in 1962, Wal-Mart has been sued for racial discrimination, sexual harassment and age discrimination.
And the latest lawsuit isn't the first for gender discrimination.
"Wal-Mart has been sued on numerous occasions by other women who have complained about sexual harassment, sex discrimination. And other employees with other kinds of employment problems," says Sellers. "And it doesn't appear to have had any impact."
The sales workforce at Wal-Mart is predominantly female, with women representing 72 percent of all hourly employees. Women hold 33 percent of managerial positions. ABCNEWS found that women at Wal-Mart hold half as many managerial positions as they do at Target and Sears, two competitors.
Company: Women Work in High Places
Micki Miller Earwood, a former personnel manager at an Urbana, Ohio, Wal-Mart, said she was recently terminated after complaining about what she said was discriminatory treatment.
"Wal-Mart is not a place I would ever hope for my daughter to work," said Earwood, one of six plaintiffs in the suit.
Wertz said women are well represented at the company — the chief executive of walmart.com is a woman, as is one of three executive vice presidents of Sam's Club, he said. Women also hold high positions in the company's labor relations and legal departments.
In all, Wertz said, women hold 37 percent of 55,000 management positions.
He also said that Wal-Mart does not count store department managers as management, while other retailers might to inflate their figures.
Betty Dukes, another plaintiff, has been working at the Wal-Mart in Pittsburg, Calif. for seven years. She said she has only ascended to cashier while her similarly qualified male counterparts have moved substantially higher up the ladder.
"There's a great divide between the men and women at Wal-Mart," Dukes said.
The case is Dukes vs. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., C-01-2252. -->