Wal-Mart angers a variety of groups: environmentalists, foodies, and, recently, women.
Much of the female anger is pointed at the recent Supreme Court decision that women employees of Wal-Mart could not file a sex-discrimination class-action lawsuit because they did not meet the criteria to file as a class. In what many see as an attempt to improve its image, Wal-Mart has launched a new women’s initiative, which includes $20 billion that will go toward sourcing Wal-Mart products from women-owned businesses. While laudable, the initiative fundamentally fails to address the true problem at hand — a large class of underpaid and under-promoted Wal-Mart employees are women. If Wal-Mart truly wants to help women and impact the persistent gender wage-gap, it should announce its intention to retrain all its management personnel regarding wages, salaries, raises and promotions, making clear that the company will track and enforce wage equality in Wal-Mart stores and make such information on store performance available to all employees. This way, women at Wal-Mart will know if they are being discriminated against and can pursue legal action if discrimination is occuring.
This is not to say that supporting women-owned businesses is unimportant. A report released at the end of last year indicated that, as of 2007, women owned only 28.7% of U.S. businesses, compared to men’s ownership of 51.3% of businesses (the rest were owned equally by men and women). Even more disturbing is that, while women-owned businesses generated $1.2 trillion in receipts, men-owned businesses generated $8.5 trillion in receipts – over seven times as much. Not only are women behind when it comes to ownership itself – they are behind when it comes to the amount of business being done.
Determining the root cause of the disparity is tricky, but an article in the Wall Street Journal suggests that women often have lower expectations for businesses they start. Compounding this issue is that they have less access to capital, as she argues that “many bankers in local communities still operate with the perception that women-owned businesses do not have the capacity to grow and are not good credit risks.” Wal-Mart’s initiative is positive in the sense that it could help women-owned businesses expand and shrink the receipt-gap discussed above. Yet it fails to address the sex-discrimination happening every day at its own stores.
The other aspects of Wal-Mart’s new initiative — skills training for 60,000 women working in factories that provide goods to the company, as well as “life skills” training, in areas such as “punctuality” and financial literacy, for 200,000 low-income women — similarly gloss over the fact that Wal-Mart stores discriminate on the basis of sex.
It is offensive that Wal-Mart’s initiative pushes the burden on women to improve their skill sets when the data clearly shows that the company paid both wage and salaried female workers less than male workers in every region. Additionally, women were shown to have been promoted less, despite the fact that they had a lower turnover rate and that the average female worker had been there longer than the average male worker. The hierarchy at Wal-Mart is systemically discriminatory against women, and Wal-Mart’s failure to address this issue forces us to see the new initiative as, at least in part, a PR stunt and distraction from an issue that afflicts middle- and working-class women across the U.S.
Those who do not want to believe women are at a disadvantage will point to figures like Meg Whitman, the new CEO of HP. While we should applaud the move, holding her up as proof that there are no cultural, social, or legal barriers (for instance, maternity leave) to working women is equivalent to using Barack Obama as proof that we live in a post-racial society. It is just not true — if it were, the statistics regarding wages, salaries, and promotions at Wal-Mart would not be as damning as they are. It is not impossible for Wal-Mart to source products from women-owned businesses while also stepping up to the plate and announcing that — as the largest company in the country, and one that is statistically and demonstrably discriminatory against women – they are working internally to fix it.
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