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Women Workers in a Post-Walmart World

By Katherine Kimpel

Last week, the Supreme Court issued a decision that makes it harder for women in the workplace to protect their rights to be free from discrimination.  In reaching their decision in Dukes v. Walmart, the Justices—the five men who wrote the majority opinion, notably overruling the objections of all three women on the court— assumed that discrimination in the workplace just doesn’t really happen that much anymore. But Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the other men on the court didn’t cite any evidence, didn’t refer to any studies, or even bother to tell any anecdote to back up that claim. They didn’t bother to contend with the fact that individuals and government agencies continually litigate, prove, and then settle or win employment discrimination cases—cases that show that discrimination is, alas, alive and well.

For example, just last year a jury in New York federal court delivered a unanimous verdict against Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, finding that the corporation had discriminated against female employees in pay and promotions, and had discriminated against pregnant employees. Although the over $250 million dollars resulting from that verdict was significant, even more important were the 23 pages of changes to policies and procedures that the company later agreed to in order to settle the case.

You see, the brave women who stood up to Novartis to bring that lawsuit helped more than themselves.  They helped the other women at Novartis, by getting the company to change. They helped other women working in the pharmaceutical industry, by sending a message to employers that discrimination will not be tolerated and that litigation can result in just and heavy penalties. And they helped the government, by holding a global corporation accountable to our federal civil rights laws.

Congress knew, when drafting the civil rights laws, that we could never expect the government to shoulder enforcement by itself. They created a system where individual Americans could stand up and act as private attorneys general—essentially privatizing, in part, the enforcement of equal opportunity. However, had last week’s Supreme Court decision in Dukes v. Walmart been the law of the land in 2010 when Novartis was decided, the brave plaintiffs in the case may not have been successful, and the changes at Novartis may never have happened.

For women workers in a post-Walmart world, it is undeniable that the scales are weighted more heavily in favor of corporations, scaling back the progress for which our mothers, grandmothers, and great grandmothers fought so valiantly. That sad fact does not relieve us of responsibility; instead, it simply means that we will all have to fight harder and with more determination than before.

On a day-to-day basis, this fight takes shape in advocating for yourselves in negotiating starting salaries, demanding rightful raises, and pushing aggressively for promotions. This fight takes shape in developing trusted coworkers who will help you benchmark your compensation and better understand the ladders to success. This fight takes shape in keeping detailed records of all of this and of your employers responses, good or bad, so that if the day comes when you or they need to get outside help, you’re ready. This fight takes shape in refusing to be silent when you or a coworker is underpaid, passed over for promotion, subjected to harassment, or disproportionately disciplined.

All of those things are necessary and good, but they are not enough. Women workers— indeed, all workers—in a post-Walmart world need to be proactive about this affront to our fundamental right to equal opportunity. Educate family and friends, write letters to your local paper, and contact your elected representatives to let them know you’re paying attention, you’re concerned, and you expect the Supreme Court’s over-reaching on behalf of corporations to be corrected.

Justice Scalia and the four other men of the majority got it wrong when they assumed that our world is a better place than it is, when they assumed that discrimination doesn’t happen anymore. They got it wrong when they decided that protecting corporations was more important than protecting individual Americans, be they men or women of any race. But the underlying faith in people wasn’t entirely misplaced. Every day, I work with men and women whose bravery to stand up for what is right inspires me. The moment now calls for the rest of us to also stand up to a Supreme Court that has gone too far.

Katherine M. Kimpel is a Partner of Sanford Wittels & Heisler, LLP, a national law firm with offices in Washington, D.C., New York, and California.  Ms. Kimpel received her law degree from Yale Law School in 2006. She served as class counsel in the Velez v. Novartis gender discrimination case and authored the amicus brief on behalf of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce in Dukes v. Walmart. Before joining Sanford Wittels & Heisler in 2007, Ms. Kimpel served as Special Counsel to Senator Russell Feingold on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where she handled criminal justice and other civil rights issues for the Senator.

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