She’s got the starring role in an $8 billion court case. The Betty Dukes Show could make her the new Erin Brockovich with her action against Wal-Mart.

When Betty Dukes signed on as a check-out counter assistant at Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest supermarket company, it was for five dollars an hour and the chance of moving up through the company ranks. ‘I thought I’d move forward quickly. I thought I’d get promoted and get good pay rises,’ she says.

She got neither. Instead she got the last thing she was looking for: a starring role in an $8 billion legal battle that could change the face of corporate America and earn her a reputation as the new Erin Brockovich.

Last week a San Francisco judge ruled that Dukes and 1.5 million current and former employees at Wal-Mart could proceed with a lawsuit alleging that the company discriminated against female employees, bypassing them for promotion and paying them less than their male counterparts. It is the largest civil rights case in US history.

‘Am I scared of what we are taking on? Fear can hold anyone back – but not me,’ says Dukes, who has worked at a Wal-Mart in Pittsburg, California, since 1994. ‘The way I see it Wal-Mart is an American company and I’m an American who is protected by the laws of my country, which state I have the right to excel in my job, regardless of gender, race or financial status.’

It would be tempting to describe the battle between Duke and her co-workers and Wal-Mart as David versus Goliath but that would be underestimating the gulf in resources between the two sides. In one corner stand some of the lowest paid, least protected workers in America. In the other corner stands Wal-Mart, an American institution with a million employees, an annual turnover of $254bn and profits of $8bn.

Legend has it that Wal-Mart expanded from a small-town operation to a global conglomerate – it now owns the British supermarket Asda, as well as 3,500 US stores – thanks to the austere but savvy business practices of its founder Sam Walton, the so-called working man’s retailer. But, according to lawyers acting for Dukes and her co-workers, the company’s expansion was achieved at the expense of its employees, especially women.

In her first nine years at Wal-Mart, Betty Dukes’s pay rose by an average of 48 cents per hour. Despite repeatedly asking her superiors about the chances for promotion, jobs she wanted and was qualified to get were filled by men. ‘I was always told to wait, that my time would come, that there were no openings available, that I didn’t have enough experience to move on. But on a number of occasions men with less experience than me were put in jobs that I desperately wanted and know I could have done well.’

In 2000, she approached the Impact Fund, an anti-discrimination organisation based in Berkeley, California, which was already investigation similar complaints from other Wal-Mart employees.

Jocelyn Larkin, a lawyer based at Impact Fund, says her organisation started to look into the company’s employment practices and discovered a disturbing pattern. ‘Based on a study of company-wide statistics we found that of men and women who started at Wal-Mart at the same time, the men had a seven times greater chance of ending up in a management position.’

Based on this evidence the Impact Fund filed a lawsuit against the company in 2001, which yielded an enormous amount of internal documents and another startling discovery. ‘Our research discovered that women doing the same jobs as men were being paid less. This was not in one store, or one region; it was a consistent pattern right across the country.

‘Wal-Mart leaves it up to individual store managers to decide who should get pay rises and it is our belief that these store managers – mostly men – rely on their stereotypes rather than on a person’s performance to make the decision about who should get paid what. They were rewarding the people who most resembled themselves – other men.’

Larkin claimed that on average women at Wal-Mart were paid $1,400 a year less than men in similar positions. Female store managers earned $89,000 a year, $16,000 less than male store managers, according to one study.

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