July 12, 2004 12:00 PM

From the time Sam’s Club hired her in 1991, Stephanie Odle was one of the company’s biggest boosters. She thrived in the family atmosphere and chanted louder than anyone during the morning ritual in which employees spelled out founder Sam Walton’s name. “I was just a Sam Walton girl,” says Odle, 32. “The culture, the founding principles, the family values—I was ready for all of that. That was going to be my life.”

Then, for Odle, the cheering stopped—when, she claims, she discovered that the giant retailer pushed men ahead faster than women. Now she’s part of the largest workplace-bias suit ever filed. The suit, which a federal judge approved for class-action status on June 22, could cover a staggering 1.6 million past and present female employees. It alleges Sam’s parent company, Wal-Mart, sys-tematically paid men higher salaries than women and passed over women for management promotions. Wal-Mart—the nation’s largest private employer, with 3,580 stores and 1.2 million full-and part-time workers, and the Fortune 500 leader, with revenues of $258 billion this year—denies the allegations. Of the judge’s decision, Mona Williams, a spokeswoman for the company, said, “We strongly disagree with his decision and will appeal.”

As for Odle, it first appeared that her career was on the fast track. Within three years of being hired, she had risen from part time cashier to assistant manager. She was relatively happy with her $35,000-a-year salary—until, she says, she inadvertently saw the W-2 form of another assistant manager. Although he had been at the company for only a year, he was earning about $10,000 more than she was. “I went to my district manager and said I wanted a raise. [He said,] ‘Stephanie, he has a wife and kids.’ ” Odle, a single mother, says that the manager demanded that she justify her request by drawing up a family budget for him to study.

Odle got a $2,000 raise, but she alleges that her career began to spiral down. In 1999, she says, she proposed changing the working hours of the tire department—a move she claimed would save Sam’s Club $3 million. She says she was ignored, but when a male general manager made the same suggestion a month later, it was implemented. Odle eventually confronted him. “He looked me dead in the eyes and said, ‘I guess it’s a man thing.’ That was the beginning of the end.” She was fired in 1999 for violating company policy by using an employee’s membership card during a training exercise. When Odle complained to human resources that her firing was discriminatory, she says she was warned that many people have tried to sue Wal-Mart with no success. At that, Odle said, “Write this down, ‘O-D-L-E,’ ’cause I will not go away.” Odle, now an office manager in Norman, Okla., began her search for an attorney.

By the time the suit was filed in 2001, five women had joined her, including Betty Dukes, 54, the lead plaintiff. Wal-Mart hired Dukes in 1994 as a part-time cashier. The Pittsburg, Calif., resident says she tried to get training for a higher position but was denied by her store manager. “I trained a lot of cashiers. I trained one man, and in 30 days they had him be a manager,” says Dukes. “When I asked my district manager, he said that [the man] was swift. ‘He’s no swifter than me,’ I told him.”

Dukes still works at Wal-Mart, though now as a greeter because carpal tunnel syndrome prevents her from operating the cash register. While some coworkers support her lawsuit, others—including women—give her the silent treatment. Christine Kwapnoski, another plaintiff, feels a similar tension at the Sam’s Club in Concord, Calif., where she’s a bakery supervisor. “I have butterflies in my stomach when I walk in the door,” says Kwapnoski.

It wasn’t always thus, she says. In addition to being denied promotions and salary increases, Kwapnoski complains that Wal-Mart management has been tone-deaf when it comes to women’s issues. “I asked what I needed to do to move up, and a general manager told me I should ‘doll up.’ I’m guessing I was supposed to start wearing dresses, even though I worked on the loading dock, got dirty and didn’t deal with the public,” she says.

Stephanie Odle often hears from friends that the company is a better place to work—since the suit was filed Wal-Mart has created a diversity office and begun tying executive bonuses to meeting diversity goals. She still shops there often, and her admiration for Sam Walton hasn’t diminished. In fact, Odle views her lawsuit as something she owes the Wal-Mart founder, who died in 1992. “I talk to Sam Walton a lot,” she says. “He wouldn’t want mass sexual discrimination. He’d want it fixed. So I think he’s saying, ‘Thank you.’ ”

Bob Meadows. Darla Atlas in Norman, Steve Barnes in Little Rock and Susan Christian Goulding and Maureen Harrington in Los Angeles

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