Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Guest Commentary: Wal-Mart and gender discrimination

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Coloradan Mary Henderson is devastated that justice still has not been served, 10 long years after she, Betty Dukes, and other women workers filed a sex discrimination case against Wal-Mart. The U.S. Supreme Court decided on Monday that these women could not join together as a "class" against Wal-Mart for gender discrimination in pay and promotion. The decision is crushing for the 1.6 million current and former women Wal-Mart workers who experienced discrimination first-hand and must now pursue legal claims one at a time.

Mary was paid thousands of dollars less than a man with less education and the same seniority in the same position. Her daughter, also a Wal-Mart employee, applied for a supervisory job that ended up going to a man because "he had a family to support" - even though she was supporting her family, as well. When Mary inquired about this, she was punished with transfer to a store requiring an hours-long commute.

Mary was not alone. The case contains thousands of pages of disturbing evidence documenting pervasive gender stereotypes, statistical pay and promotion disparities, and policies that allowed those stereotypes to negatively influence employment decisions affecting women throughout the company. It is an outrage that the court did not provide full justice for these women.

This decision does not exonerate Wal-Mart for discriminatory practices, but it does create a huge burden for those who have experienced discrimination. Allowing the world's largest employer to engage in wholesale discriminatory practices and then take on each woman (with high-priced lawyers and stalling tactics) by herself is bad law and just plain wrong.

But this case still presents an opportunity for Wal-Mart to update its corporate culture, as well as a lesson to other companies to do the same. Businesses that are inclusive of women - and people of color - are better positioned to compete in an increasingly global economy. But retaining these employees depends on taking positive steps to make sure discrimination never happens, like:

Ban on Stereotypes. Notions that women are inferior to men, are uninterested in career advancement and would be better off "barefoot and pregnant," as one Wal-Mart manager allegedly stated, are just not true. Make sure your workplace is a stereotype-free zone so all feel comfortable and able to be productive members of a real team.

Pay and Promotions. The Wal-Mart women demonstrated disparities in pay and promotion, a no-no. Businesses should conduct human resources self-audits of pay and promotion equity. If women are paid less for equal skills and experience, fix it immediately. Be vigilant in ensuring that pay differentials are due to solely to credentials, experience and responsibilities, not sex, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, age, religion or gender identity.

Trust and Transparency. Policies prohibiting employees from discussing pay don't work, as Wal-Mart found out when women there discovered they were regularly paid less than men. HR invitations to air complaints on the job should never be twisted into retaliation as happened when a Wal-Mart manager told female employees alleging discrimination, "I can fire you, without taking any steps, for using the (O)pen (D)oor (POLICY)." The most productive workplaces are those where employers create trusting relationships and adhere to fair policies.

Now is the time for Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act to prevent the abuse that the women of Wal-Mart described

in court documents. The bill will protect employees by allowing them to discussing wages with their peers and prohibit employers from retaliating against those raising wage-equity issues. The persistent pay gap between men and women for the same work must be addressed.

This case has educated the public about employer responsibilities and employee rights in the workplace, even if the women were not able to seek justice as a group. All companies, including Wal-Mart, must be fair to all employees - men and women alike.

Linda Meric is the executive director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women, a national membership-based organization of low-income women working to improve policies on issues that directly affect them. EDITOR'S NOTE: This is an online-only column and has not been edited.

Read more:Guest Commentary: Wal-Mart and gender discrimination - The Denver Posthttp://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_18340798#ixzz1QbUXIxRu
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