PITTSBURG, Calif. - It all started with something Betty Dukes didn't do in 1998 at a Wal-Mart store in Pittsburg, Calif. She didn't come back late from lunch.
But her manager said she did and initiated retaliatory coaching for the veteran greeter at the store. But there were no such warnings, or punishments, for male co-workers who did come back late, she noticed.
And Dukes, now 61, a dignified, well-spoken African-American woman distinguished by a ready smile, a steely will and wire-rimmed glasses, started noticing other things at her Wal-Mart, too. She wanted training for managerial vacancies, but was never told of opportunities. When vacancies opened, they went to less-qualified men. And she got demoted - and her pay cut - after the "coaching." Men did not.
Then she started asking questions: How much were the men paid? How much were the women paid? Who got the higher ratings - and who got the management jobs? And all those questions, banded together with similar questions from other woman workers at other Wal-Marts, led Betty Dukes and her colleagues to the U.S. Supreme Court on March 29.
There, as Dukes, Edith Arana, Deborah Gunter, Christine Kwapnoski, Stephanie Odle and other female Wal-Mart workers looked on, their attorneys argued the class-action suit they and almost 1.6 million other present and former female Wal-Mart workers filed should go forward. The suit covers from 1998 until the present.
Wal-Mart attorneys argued it shouldn't. Wal-Mart argued Dukes, Kwapnoski and the others should sue it - the world's largest private enterprise - one by one.
In an interview after the High Court hearing, Dukes says she shouldn't have to do that.
"I was aware of gender and racial discrimination and I was falsely accused of violating a policy" that wasn't even on Wal-Mart's books, she said. That's when Dukes started talking to female co-workers. They discovered men were paid more, despite women's better evaluations and more experience, and that promotions were skewed.
"So I started looking for legal help and while talking to the lawyers about what happened to me, I also mentioned to them the other discrimination that was going on."
What was going on was pervasive, company-wide sexual discrimination, lawyers for the women say. Drawing on depositions from the women who have been willing to step forward, they described a corporate culture at Wal-Mart of lower pay for equal work, of refusal to post vacancies but instead reserving them for men, of lack of promotions and of sexual condescension.
That includes the fact that women with the same qualifications and experience as men consistently earned $1,100 less per year, each. That includes the fact that even though Wal-Mart's workforce is majority female, only 33 percent of low-level managers are women and that number sharply shrinks the higher you go in the Wal-Mart hierarchy.
Kwapnoski, of Bay Point, Calif., said the sexual condescension, discrimination and harassment was the same at her Sam's Club. Kwapnoski had a back-office no-contact-with-customers entry-level Receiving Office Manager job, which she finally got after the class-action case began in 2001. Her general manager gave her "advice."
"I was told to 'blow the cobwebs off my makeup' and 'doll up,'" Kwapnoski said. But it wasn't just make-up; it was something more.
The manager also told her that men were being promoted and getting raises - while she was not - because "they have families to support."
"Well, at the time I was a single mom with two kids. I, too, have a family to support," Kwapnoski says.
The case has gone on so long that one of the women, Odle, who now lives in Norman, Okla., showed reporters a picture of her daughter, at age 3, when it began.
"I made a promise that she wouldn't have to go through what I had to go through. And here we are," Odle said, gesturing at the 14-year-old girl beside her.
Wal-Mart's defense in the High Court, said the attorneys for the women, came down to two arguments: That it's too big to sue and that because it has an employee handbook that outlaws sexual discrimination on the job, that should be enough.
And in their press conference after the High Court hearing on whether the class-action case should go forward to an actual trial, Wal-Mart attorneys trotted out a female manager who said she got her position in fewer than four years after being hired.
That doesn't surprise Dukes or her colleagues: They told reporters that in recent years, Wal-Mart has changed some policies, such as posting managerial vacancies. In a way, Dukes said, the women suing Wal-Mart have already won.
"It started as Dukes vs. Wal-Mart," she said. "Now, it's Wal-Mart vs. Dukes."