Wal-Mart’s Gender Washing

“Wal-Mart Launches Global Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative; Effort Includes Goal to Source $20 Billion from Women‑Owned Businesses in the U.S.” read the headline on Wal-Mart’s press release announcing a new “gender washing” initiative.

Well, ok, it didn’t say “gender washing.” I made up the term to convey the same meaning as “green washing” when it’s used to describe companies that try to look environmentally responsible–while doing little or nothing to actually change themselves or improve the environment.

Still, $20 billion is a lot of money. Or is it? According to The New York Times, the $4 billion a year that Wal-Mart will spend sourcing from women-owned U.S. businesses amounts to about 5 percent of the company’s annual operating expenses.

Besides, a more relevant question is why the company has only recently discovered women as a resource, both as customers and suppliers–not to mention the revelation by Leslie A. Dach, executive vice president of corporate affairs, that “the majority of our associates [sales personnel] are women.” Duh. Could the answer be that a big portion of those associates sued the company for sex discrimination in pay and promotion, and then Wal-Mart spent countless millions and 11 years fighting the claim? Even though Wal-Mart prevailed with the contention that it is too big to be sued, it was a public relations black eye.

The majority of those female associates Dach talked about are still stuck at the lowest rung of the company and make less than the company men. Statistics cited in the court case show that women represent 70 percent of the hourly wage earners at the company, but only 33 percent of management. And female employees are paid less than men in every region, with the salary gap widening over the course of employment–even for men and women hired to perform the same job at the same time.

Curious, while the new initiative is heavy on training women in foreign countries who work for Wal-Mart suppliers, it doesn’t say anything about training managers in the U.S. on how to be fair in choosing folks for pay raises and promotions. (The Supremes essentially ruled [PDF] that giving such discretion to local managers did not constitute a company-wide discriminatory policy–a “pattern and practice” in legal parlance–that could be used by the plaintiffs to sue as a class. If the women want to sue now, they have to do so individually–a near impossibility for a low-wage worker.)

The Dukes v. Wal-Mart case has implications far beyond training programs and health education for female employees in Bangladesh (another “benefit” touted as part of the new initiative). According to Employment Law 360, a legal website that aggregates lawsuit news, in the three months since the decision corporations have gotten class actions thrown out in such areas as overtime pay, insurance overcharges and the release or toxins in a neighborhood. To read some of the reactions to Dukes from corporate lawyers, the decision was Christmas and the Fourth of July rolled into one. A virtual end to class actions as we know them. That’ll teach those uppity women.

Understand, I’m a big supporter of women-owned businesses, and I’m a big supporter of improving the lot of female workers worldwide. So any improvement is welcomed. I’d like to write more, but I need to catch a plane. I’m headed to Margaritaville to find my lost shaker of salt.

Photo of Walmart exterior from Wikimedia Commons.


Martha Burk is money editor at Ms.