The last straw for Tin Zaw Dinu came shortly after she lost her mother. Her employer, Home Depot, asked her to to travel a few months later to help a failing facility get back on its feet, an assignment she accepted but meant leaving her father alone back home. “I gave it my all,” she said.
When she returned, she thought she might finally get the promotion she had tried for twice before. She applied for an opening for operations manager. But she says she wasn’t even given a chance to interview for it. Instead, a younger man was hired for the role, which she says happened after her previous two attempts. “It really destroyed my confidence, it really destroyed the person that I am,” she said. “It was really tough, it really was.”
“You couldn’t break the boys club,” she said. “For us women, we just kind of got pushed to the back.”
She and five other women filed a lawsuit against Home Depot in California court last week. They all worked at the same distribution center in Tracy, California, and all allege that they were kept from advancing because they were older women who weren’t Hispanic. The lawsuit says they were “repeatedly overlooked for hiring and promotions, despite being better qualified than men who are interviewed, promoted, and hired in their place,” and that they endured harassment and retaliation when they complained. They also say that the treatment they experienced continues and isn’t just confined to their location.
The company did not return a request for comment. But the lawsuit accuses the company of being aware of the problems. One plaintiff says that when she brought up gender discrimination with a regional human resources representative, the rep noted that the company “gets a lot of…complaints” and that “this is something we’re trying to fix…[w]e know it has been brought up in other facilities.”
Dinu immigrated to the United States from Burma at the age of nine. “I came here for opportunities,” she said with tears in her voice. “You want to build a life. I wanted to be an example for my children.” After she started at Home Depot in the operations department of the center, she sought out chances to advance. She was given two departments ranked at the bottom for performance to manage, she says, and within six months brought them up to the top two. That “was something that has not been able to be done since the building opened,” she said.
But even though she asked for opportunities to move up, she says she repeatedly saw younger, Hispanic men at lower levels get promoted over her. “People who were working for me at one time became my managers,” she said. All the while, she was continually asked to go to other locations to train them on their operations given her success with the two failing departments. And she was also told that she did well on the test required for advancement and in the interviews she did get. When she didn’t get the promotions, she said, “they couldn’t tell me what I needed to work on, what I needed to improve.” Instead, she was told that in order to get promoted, she would have to relocate her family to a different center.
After her third attempt following her mother’s death, she decided she’d had enough. “I said I know I’m better than this,” she said. “Finally it was time for me to move on.”
In a company report, Home Depot says that while it increased its overall workforce by 70 percent between 2000 and 2012, its minority workforce went up 126 percent during that time and its female workforce went up by 84 percent. But it doesn’t include an actual breakdown of diversity among its employees. It gets just a two-star rating out of five for women friendliness on the anonymous, unverified rating site InHerSight, including a 2.3 rating for women in top leadership and 2.3 rating for women’s opportunities to advance into management.
Lana Branch, another plaintiff who worked with Dinu at the Tracy center, was in a different department. Yet she says she experienced many of the same things. In the quality control department where she already worked as a supervisor, there were two openings for operations manager positions in two years, both of which she wanted to apply to. Instead, she said, the company relocated male workers from other departments to fill the roles. For each man who was hired into those roles, she said, “I had to literally teach him what the process was.” She says she was sent to other facilities to train them and even relocated her family to Arizona for two years.
Meanwhile, she was the only African-American person in management in her facility. “I took a lot of negativity, harassment,” she said. “They had ground me down that far that they took an emotional toll.” She says her doctor ordered her to take time off due to the stress her job caused her. She felt that they just saw her as a placeholder for her race. “I was basically seen as a token. I took that personal,” she said, choking up. “Just because of my race…I was a token, meaning you were the person we needed to meet the quota.”
Eventually she decided to move to a different segment and see if she could advance there. But even though she went through the formal process to get promoted and was told she tested and interviewed well, they once again promoted a Hispanic man into the position, she says. She decided she had to leave the company if she wanted to get ahead. She was quickly hired by another company into the role she had sought for so long at Home Depot: operations manager.
“My final question to them was, ‘How is it that you gave me the opportunity to go out and network with other buildings, but I’m not quite capable to get a promotion here in my building?’” she said. “He really didn’t have an answer for me.”
In the formal complaint, the other female plaintiffs detail similar experiences of getting passed over for promotions and often not even being allowed to interview, while younger, less experienced men were chosen instead. One, Rose Samano, notes that she eventually realized there was a “two-tiered hiring system” in which, if a woman applied for an open position, an announcement was made that a job wouldn’t be filled at that time, but within months a younger man would be hired into it.
Other female managers say they were either ignored or singled out for ridicule. Samano also says gendered language such as calling the women “girls” was common and belligerent males coworkers weren’t disciplined, instead excused by saying “that’s just the way he is.”
The lawsuit seeks damages for lost wages as well as punitive damages. For Dinu and Branch, it goes further. “What we’re hoping to get out of this: justice and a fair opportunity for everyone regardless of your gender,” Branch said. “Hopefully we’ll be that voice for the future females, if they’re starting to see something or a trend, they know that they have rights.”
“It’s the right thing to do, not just for us but others that are there,” Dinu noted. But she’s also doing it to make a point for her children. “This is for them as well,” she said. “You don’t have to take a back seat, it’s okay to stand up for your rights.”