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Martha Burk Headshot

Gender Washing at Walmart

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"Walmart 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 Walmart's press release announcing a new "gender washing" initiative.

Well, ok, they didn't mention "gender washing." I made up the term to convey the same meaning "green washing" evokes 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 Walmart will spend sourcing from women-owned U.S. businesses works out to a measly 5% 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 are women." Duh. Could the answer be that 1.5 million of those associates sued the company for sex discrimination in pay and promotion, and Walmart spent countless millions and 10 years fighting the claim? Even though Walmart 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 and make less than the men. Statistics cited in the case show that women represent 70% of the hourly wage earners at the company, but only 33% 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.

It's curious that the new initiative is heavy on training women in foreign countries who work for Walmart suppliers, but 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. It was this "tap on the shoulder" promotion practice by supervisors that led to the suit. The Supremes essentially ruled 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, they have to do it individually -- a near impossibility for a low wage worker.

The Dukes v. Walmart 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 of 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. I'm also a big supporter of improving the lot of female workers worldwide, and Walmart employs a bunch of them. So any progress is welcomed.

Gotta go now -- I need to catch a plane. I'm headed to Margaritaville to find my lost shaker of salt.