by Leslie Morgan Steiner
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court took on the biggest employment discrimination case in history. The landmark suit pitted the country’s largest private employer, Walmart, against roughly 1,500,000 of its current and former female workers. The case, which was been wending its way through our court system for a decade, had clearcut statistics: women made up 65 percent of the lower-level hourly workforce, but only 33 percent of the management employees. Female employees overall were paid on average $1.16 per hour less than men in the same job, despite having more seniority, lower turnover rates and higher performance ratings.
Cynics predicted that it would be difficult for a Supreme Court that is widely viewed as business-friendly to rule against a corporate giant like Walmart. But women are big business today too. We are the most valuable human resource in the country. We’re better educated, with more college degrees than men, and an increasing percentage of graduate degrees. Women control $1.7 trillion in annual purchasing; we influence 85% of purchase decisions, including a whole lot at Walmart.
Walmart’s simple defense against the suit? The case is too big. Too many woman are involved. Too many Walmart stores are implicated. Employees at too many levels, from entry-level positions up to managers, experienced discrimination.
This bizarre logic had me scratching my head. The case should be dismissed because too many women are affected? Because gender bias and pay discrimination are so widespread at Walmart and in society that we need to accept them?
I had hoped our wise village elders on the Supreme Court would see through Walmart’s legal wrangling.
Unfortunately for all of us, there seemed to be little head-scratching among the Supreme Court justices. Two days after hearing oral arguments, in one of the speediest decisions ever returned by the Court, a majority agreed with Walmart in a baffling 5-4 ruling. The verdict was announced Friday, April 1st but it was no April Fool’s joke.
The quick timing seemed intended as a slap to the Walmart women and a deterrent to future female class action lawsuits. Many Supreme Court decisions take months or the better part of a year to debate, write up and issue to the public. But the Walmart case, despite having been complicated enough to occupy lower courts for ten years, was decided in a snap of the judges’ fingers. The implicit message seems to be: don’t you ladies go trying this again.