Lorelei Kilker was an analytical chemist at a processing plant in Ft. Morgan, Colo., testing water and product samples.
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From 1999 to 2008, she worked for Western Sugar Cooperative, an enterprise with sprawling plants in four states, largely owned by sugar beet farmers.
It's not like women at the sugar factory were routinely called "sugar," "honey" or even "sweetie." But when Kilker, now 31 years old, was denied a promotion, she noticed women were routinely handed less-desirable job assignments than men. They were denied training. They couldn't easily move from part-time to full-time gigs. And the factory seemed divided between lower-paying jobs for women and higher-paying jobs for men.
Western Sugar officials didn't respond to a request for comment, but the company has denied these allegations. The way Kilker saw it, many of her female co-workers were in denial about it, too.
"They saw what was going on," Kilker said in a telephone interview. "It didn't occur to them that it was wrong."
Six years ago, when Kilker filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Commission in Denver, some of her female co-workers at least pretended to understand. "They would agree with me to my face, but they wouldn't want to participate in the investigation," she said. "It just didn't concern them."
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Kilker found herself trapped in subtle psychological workplace games. A manager and a human-resource executive would pull her aside. "I would be grilled about what I thought was wrong, and why would I think that. They'd say, "Why would I think they don't like women, when this person is a woman, and that person is a woman, and they work here." Things like that.
"Ultimately, I was forced to quit because it was so miserable," Kilker said.
Years passed, and Kilker was never sure her claims would go anywhere.
"It was inside my gut and I couldn't let it go," she said. "It wasn't right. I wouldn't want my daughter to experience this just because she's a girl."
As the economy slowed, more of Kilker's female co-workers likely realized they needed more money, Kilker suspects, so they finally began talking. Eventually, a tenacious EEOC investigator named Shannon Breen came up with enough evidence to bring Western Sugar to the settlement table.
In October, the company agreed to pay Kilker and other female employees $550,000, offer new employee- and management-training programs, and reach out to women's community organizations.
The company denied wrongdoing, as is the custom in settling allegations with regulators.
"I wish they had been forced to admit it," Kilker said, "but I think the settlement was an admission enough."
Women make about 77 cents for every dollar men make, according the Institute For Women's Policy Research in Washington, D.C.
Patricia McMahon, a spokeswoman for the EEOC in Denver, can't believe how sex discrimination thrives in 2012. Her mother was a founding member of the Nevada chapter of the National Organization of Women. "She always told me that it would be different when I grew up," McMahon said. "It's not. How is that possible?"
As tales of gender inequality go, this one would end happily enough for Kilker if it ended right here. But there is more.
On Tuesday night, anyone who works at Western Sugar and watched the State of the Union address might have noticed Kilker sitting near First Lady Michelle Obama. The White House invited Kilker to showcase her as a champion of women's rights and equal pay.
"It never occurred to me that anybody in Washington would ever know about something that happened in a small town in Colorado," Kilker said.
She likely won't be getting a congratulatory call from her former employer for helping them change their culture.
"I can't even imagine what's going through their minds that this little girl got invited to the White House because of what happened," she said.
(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. Contact Al at email@example.com or tellittoal.com)