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Wal-Mart: What Do Women Want?

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Judging by allegations in the class action suit being brought by their female employees, Wal-Mart executives and managers seem to have "dog ears." You know how dogs' hearing is attuned to certain frequencies? Well, Wal-Mart leaders have their own selective hearing: they can hear only voices in the lower register -- male voices.

But it's not just a Wal-Mart problem. Countless women in businesses and organizations across the country report a common experience: Often when a woman in a business meeting suggests an idea, she is ignored. Ten minutes later, a male colleague suggests a remarkably similar idea and everyone jumps on board with a hearty chorus of "atta boy" and "great idea!" The woman feels confused, hurt, and angry. "What's with that?" she fumes as she leaves the meeting.

And it's not just her spoken word that goes unheard in the world of business. Women fare no better with the written word. For the past five years I've been studying the Wall Street Journal business best-seller list. Among the top 15 titles every week, almost 100% are written by men. (Suze Orman is the notable exception). It's disheartening to think that only men are seen experts in leadership, teamwork, customer service, motivation, communication, innovation, sales and marketing, finance, change management, career skills, project management and time management. The dearth of women business authors is especially startling in light of the fact that more new businesses formed were started by women than men in the last twenty-five years ... and women business owners employ 35% more people than the Fortune 500 combined!

I could put a positive spin on these book statistics and say that women are so busy DOING business that they don't have time to write about it. But I don't buy it ... and neither do you. The real reason that business books by women never become best-sellers is the "dog ears" problem.

No matter how the Wal-Mart women's class action suit turns out, this historic legal action is already making waves throughout Corporate America. These women, whose voices were not acknowledged by their bosses, are now making their voices heard in court - as well as in the court of public opinion. If the women succeed in their suit, there may be many more corporate women with their own grievances waiting in the wings to file their own suits. And even if Wal-Mart management prevails, their margin of victory will probably be narrow. Businesses both large and small are nervously watching as the drama unfolds, wondering if this could happen to them.

Business leaders need to take a good, hard look at how they treat these women who make up more than half their workforce. In today's hyper-competitive global business environment, can any organization afford to suppress the creativity and ideas of bright, talented, energetic females? Can corporations really afford to ignore and overlook the achievements and ambitions of women who aspire to climb the ladder of success? Executives and managers who want their corporations to be profitable need to do right by the women who contribute to that profitability.

Women are still paid less than 80% of what men in comparable jobs are paid. Women managers still have a better chance of being kidnapped by terrorists than of making to the executive suite. Working women still struggle with walking the tightrope of narrowly defined acceptable behavior for their gender - not too feminine, lest she be judged as "too soft," and not too masculine, or she's labeled a "bitch" (or worse).

What do the women of Wal-Mart want? They want what working women everywhere want: to be heard, to have their talents and skills acknowledged, to be appreciated for their creativity and contributions, and to be rewarded for their results. Nothing says, "You're valued," like a paycheck. Corporate platitudes like "Our people are our most important resource" ring hollow in the face of inequitable pay, curtailed promotions, and dead-end careers. Talk is cheap. Show us the money!

Listen up, guys! Are there any business leaders out there who don't have dog ears?

BJ Gallagher is coauthor of "A Peacock in the Land of Penguins: A Fable About Creativity and Courage," about getting your voice heard by those who sing in a different key.