This post contains some information about the Dukes v Wal-Mart case and my suggestions to Wal-Mart executives when thinking about women in the future.
Wal-Mart is one of the most polarizing global corporations in existence. Many business people and investors lionize Wal-Mart as a supply-chain marvel and an innovator in business. Customers flock to the outlets seeing Wal-Mart as a stalwart low price outlet and an overall creator of value. Suppliers largely view Wal-Mart ambivalently as a great single-stop venue for their merchandise as well as a constant pressure on their profit margins. Small retailers fear Wal-Mart for their advantages in economies of scale and aggressive business tactics. Opponents despise Wal-Mart for destroying small businesses, blighting community aesthetics, and driving suppliers to outsource jobs. Regardless of your personal position, Wal-Mart and its business practices are a force to be reckoned and a reality for the foreseeable future.
Because it is the single largest US employer, Wal-Mart faces some personnel challenges. The entire Wal-Mart business model rests on their low-price leader position, so they constantly seek to trim costs. Employee costs are the largest expenses of most employers and Wal-Mart is no exception. As a large retailer, most Wal-Mart employees are low-wage, low-skill positions such as cashiers, clerks, administrative personnel, and warehouse personnel. For years a tension has developed between Wal-Mart’s corporate goals and the employees’ desire for adequate compensation. This tension has resulted in increased public scrutiny, suppression of unionization efforts, boycotts, and recent litigation.
Some female employees are in a class action suit against Wal-Mart alleging discriminatory promotion practices and pay schedules for men and women. Plaintiff evidence includes anecdotal witness testimony and statistical information compiled by Dr. Richard Drogin (Lawrence and Weber). The anecdotal evidence may be difficult to substantiate, and an employer as vast as Wal-Mart will have personnel of varying viewpoints and behavior, some of which may run counter to corporate policy and happen without executive knowledge or consent. On the other hand, Dr. Drogin’s statistical information may be damaging to Wal-Mart. Clearly, women hold proportionally fewer management positions according to one graph (Lawrence and Weber). The difficulty lies in parsing the relevant factors, such as: women may not desire or request promotions; women may have less flexibility to accept promotions requiring schedule changes or relocations; women may be newer to the Wal-Mart workforce overall or experience higher turnover due to life changes; and these figures might be geographically skewed in global locations where women traditionally hold different positions than men (Avery).
Dukes v Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. began in 2000 but did not achieve class action status until 2009 (Lawrence and Weber). In April 2010, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit was the most recent court to uphold the class action certification. Some of the dissenting judges argued that the class action status was unwarranted because the half-million women in the class had different work environments, supervisors, positions, and other factors in their cases. Also, the class status would prevent Wal-Mart from creating individual defenses against claimants (Liptak and Greenhouse). In March of 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on whether or not to uphold the class action certification and a decision is expected in June (Anonymous). Throughout the case, Wal-Mart corporate response appeared to focus mainly upon denial and blaming individual claimants (Sherman).
After class action status was certified by lower courts, Wal-Mart adopted a more serious public posture that included a new CEO and a “global women’s council” (Lawrence and Weber). Whether these changes will affect anything is to be determined. A forward-thinking executive in Wal-Mart might muse on a few topics when making future policy changes. These relevant topics include: Wal-Mart desires a sustained global domination of the world retail market; women control most of the purchasing power in families; women bear children that become potential future customers; data from developing economies indicates that educating and empowering women spurs economic growth; and soon women will dominate the voter rolls of many areas. All of these factors should clearly indicate that promoting the well-being of women will be great for the Wal-Mart bottom line. So, recall the adage “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” To achieve maximum effectiveness in a woman-focused agenda, this approach should be widely publicized in internal documents and staff training as well as public marketing campaigns. If women perceive Wal-Mart as woman-friendly, they are much more likely to include Wal-Mart in their family budget.
Anonymous. (2011). Press Releases. Wal-Mart Class website. http://www.walmartclass.com/walmartclass_casedevelopments.html
Avery, P. (2011). “Wal-Mart sex discrimination class action plaintiffs urge Supreme Court to uphold historic civil rights and workers’ laws in brief filed today.” Press Releases. Wal-Mart Class website. http://www.walmartclass.com/staticdata/2.22.10%20Press%20Release.pdf
Lawrence, A. T. & Weber, J., (2008). Business & society: Stakeholders, ethics, public policy, 13th edition. Burr Ridge, IL: McGraw-Hill/Irwin, 385-409.
Liptak, A. & Greenhouse, S. (2010). “Supreme Court agrees to hear Wal-Mart appeal.” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/07/business/07bizcourt.html
Sherman, M. (2011). “Wal-Mart faces class-action lawsuit.” The Washington Times. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/mar/27/wal-mart-faces-class-action-lawsuit/?page=1