Walmart’s Women Deception: How A Retail Giant Made Everyone Think It’s ‘Lady-Friendly’
6:00 pm, July 5th | by Amy Tennery
Late last month, the Network of Executive Women named Walmart’s CEO, Mike Duke, among the most progressive leaders in business, awarding him with a “hall of fame” prize for his dedication to promoting women into leadership roles. Yes, you read that right.
And, in a recent item for the Huffington Post, National Organization of Women President Terry O’Neill responded to the news pretty much as you’d expect — with a huge “WTF?”
Okay, not literally. But her post summed up what I’d imagine is the most logical reaction to the news: Why on earth did the CEO of Walmart — A.K.A. Satan’s Safeway — just get an award for diversity?
Some background information: Duke received the NEW William J. Grize Diversity Hall of Fame Award on June 28 from the Network of Executive Women. The award honors “industry leaders who have demonstrated ‘an enduring commitment to the advancement of women’” in the workplace, according to a statement NEW released. Justifying its selection, NEW explained that “Walmart has advanced women to a number of key positions during Duke’s tenure as president and CEO.” Unfortunately, NEW only named three women who have “advanced” since Duke took over the executive suite. And at no point does NEW confirm that Duke himself was instrumental in promoting them.
To be fair, NEW also pointed out that Duke kicked off a Walmart Global Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative last fall, and the company has pledged to “source $20 billion from women-owned businesses” over the next five years. That’s admirable. And Walmart’s 16-person board (of which Duke is a member) has four female members, which puts it well above average, compared to the overall Fortune 500. This is all to say that, in the grand scheme of things, Walmart’s not entirely inept when it comes to its image, woman-wise.
For this reason, we should be glad that O’Neill weighed in — because she points out some staggering, often overlooked facts about Walmart in her piece. And while Walmart may have mastered the art of looking good on diversity when it comes to the executive ranks, there’s evidence to show it’s still struggling to meet basic levels of fairness among its in-store employees.
O’Neill points the damning finger at the decade-long gender discrimination class action suit against Walmart, which was only recently dismissed. That on its own would be bad enough — it’s nearly laughable to consider that the CEO of a company that was the target of a lawsuit on behalf of 1.5 million of its female employees was just honored for his deft gender relations (of course, Duke wasn’t CEO was the lawsuit was initially filed, but he’s been with the company since 1995). And while the original suit failed in the Supreme Court, it’s hilariously ironic to note that right around the time Duke opened that “women’s empowerment initiative,” the plaintiffs were in the process of filing a followup bias suit.
Even more alarmingly, as O’Neill notes, a resulting study from the Walmart suit showed major on-the-ground inequities for female employees there. From her piece:
Mike Duke and Walmart fail to provide real opportunities for women. The study cited two causes of the gender pay gap at Walmart: Women worked disproportionately in lower paying hourly jobs, and on top of that, they earned less money than men with the same position. In 2010, a majority of Walmart managers and officials in the U.S. were men, even though a majority of its U.S. workers — and shoppers — were women.
So what are we to make of this? It’s clear that companies with with diverse corporate governances tend to perform better — and whether it’s correlation or causation, there’s ample evidence to show companies with at least some women in the leadership ranks perform better. And while the high-ranking employees (women included) get the most attention, lower-level staffers rarely make news. It’s obvious — from a performance and image standpoint — that Walmart benefits from putting women in the executive suite, even as its systemic pattern of inequality on the ground continue.
Put a couple women in charge and you get an award? Not sure that’s the message we want to send Walmart — or anyone, really.
(Note: Neither NEW, nor Walmart, immediately responded to a request for comment.)