Walmart Suddenly Loves (Some) Women

Walmart is rolling out a global program to benefit women but it won’t help their own female U.S. retail employees.

Recently Walmart made our unofficial list of workplaces that are unfriendly to women. For years, the company has been fighting the largest class action gender discrimination lawsuit in history. In June 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there was no evidence of a centralized corporate conspiracy by Walmart to discriminate against women, so they decertified the class action and cast the individual claims back into the lower courts. These cases are still pending. Now Walmart has turned around and announced an ambitious, global initiative to benefit women.

On September 14, Walmart unveiled their Global Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative. Emphasis on global, and add “external women.” Nowhere in Walmart’s entire we-love-women press release or dog-and-pony webcast did the phrase “female Walmart U.S. retail workers” ever come up. Of course, any corporate lawyer would caution against this while the individual discrimination cases are pending, but it was the pink elephant in the room during the entire presentation.

President and CEO Mike Duke listed four goals the company has set toward making “…Walmart the best place for women to work at all levels.” The company plans to develop and advance women leaders, build a pipeline of women talent, promote inclusion, and invest in women externally. Duke made clear that the rest of the discussion would focus solely on the fourth goal, although the first three were crying out for discussion and elaboration.

As far as things go for women outside the organization, Walmart is committing to an enormous program. In their press release, Walmart details plans through 2016.

  1. Over the next five years, the company will source $20 billion from women-owned businesses in the U.S. and double sourcing from women suppliers internationally.
  2. New programs will help 60,000 women working in factories that supply products to Walmart and other retailers develop the skills they need to become more active decision-makers in their jobs and for their families.
  3. Successful retail training programs will be scaled to help 200,000 women receive job training and education internationally. In the U.S., Walmart will help 200,000 women from low-income households gain job skills and access higher education.
  4. The company will work with major professional service firms and merchandise suppliers with over $1 billion in sales to increase women and minority representation on Walmart accounts.
  5. The company will support women’s economic empowerment programs with more than $100 million in grants. Funding will come from the Walmart Foundation and donations directly from Walmart’s international businesses.

Frankly, it sounds great. Women and women-owned businesses could use a benefactor like Walmart. But how can a company claim to support women and families around the world while ignoring the concerns of their own female employees and fighting them in court? More than 1.5 million women joined the original class action claim. Every company has dissatisfied employees, but this should be a red flag the size of Texas. Yet Walmart acts as though none of it ever happened as they proclaim their admiration and respect for women and deny any correlation between their legal problems and the announcement of this program. Not only do they not publicly acknowledge any issues within their own organization, they are mandating that the companies they work with promote women to work on Walmart accounts. That’s pretty bold.

Despite the many questionable business practices that have come to light in recent years, Walmart is a very smart company. The Walmart C-suite knows that women are good for more than just cheap(er) labor – women also make the vast majority of household buying decisions. Duke acknowledges that globally, women control $20 trillion in annual spending. Repairing its image and convincing women that it cares about women and families to cement customer loyalty in one fell swoop is a very shrewd move.

This might be a shamefully soulless PR stunt, yet it’s one that could benefit hundreds of thousands of women worldwide. Should we embrace it? If it was another company who had a proven track record for supporting and promoting women within their own organization, all the way down to the line workers, there would be no doubt. But considering Walmart’s disregard for women in its lower ranks, this fervent support for women rings hollow. Maybe someday they might even come back to those first three goals. As Dr. Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations told Walmart, “The world will be watching.”

image: Melissa Wall

Andrea Newell

Andrea Newell is a Michigan-based writer specializing in corporate social responsibility, women’s issues, and the environment.