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This week, the Supreme Court threw out a major class-action lawsuit against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. that claimed the corporation widely and systematically discriminated against potentially 1.5 million of its female employees. The women pressing the case said they and colleagues nationwide were being victimized by Wal-Mart’s practice of letting local management make subjective or biased decisions about pay and promotions.

In a 5-4 vote, the court determined that the plaintiffs could not prove Wal-Mart had a common corporate policy of gender discrimination in the workplace and therefore could not continue with a class-action lawsuit.

“In a company of Wal-Mart’s size and geographical scope, it is quite unbelievable that all managers would exercise their discretion in a common way without some common direction,” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia for the conservative majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

The ruling is a huge victory for Wal-Mart, but it also sets a precedent that may be important for other employers who face similar lawsuits. According to Bloomberg, units of Cigna Corp., Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Bayer AG, Toshiba Corp., Publicis Group SA, Deere & Co. and Costco Wholesale Corp. all face gender discrimination in the workplace complaints seeking class-action status. Wal-Mart received the support of more than 20 companies in this lawsuit, including Bank of America Corp., Microsoft Corp. and General Electric Co.

The Supreme Court justices disagreed, however (in a 5-4 ideological split), about whether or not the women had given enough evidence to show common practices led to gender discrimination in the workplace. This difference in opinion could be important in future discrimination cases.

In a partial dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said there was enough proof of sex discrimination for the lawsuit to proceed but not for monetary damages. Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagen agreed with her position.

“Women fill 70% of the hourly jobs in the retailer’s stores, but make up only 33% of the management employees,” she wrote. “The higher one looks in the organization, the lower the percentage of women.”

The Wal-Mart discrimination lawsuit brings up complicated questions about gender discrimination in the workplace. Is a corporation guilty of discrimination and bias if its staff is predominantly female, yet a vast majority of its management is male? Should the law become involved, or should those decisions be left up to the corporations themselves? Do managers need to become more educated about their own personal biases and how they can affect decisions at work?

What do you think of the Wal-Mart ruling? Add your take on the case in the comments.

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