Last week, I wrote about how the the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Ninth Circuit’s certification of a class in a class action sex discrimination lawsuit brought by current and former female employees of Wal-Mart against the superstore. (See Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011); Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 603 F.3d 571 (9th Cir. 2010).) Although the class action failed, the company continues to deal with the possibility of individual claims of sex discrimination.
In the wake of this public relations nightmare, the superstore is going to great lengths to re-brand itself as female-friendly. On Wednesday, September 14th, Wal-Mart announced new programs aimed at helping women-owned businesses and women workers. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, Wal-Mart Chief Executive Mike Duke voiced the company's party line when he stated that Wal-Mart "want[s] women to view us as a retailer that is relevant to them and cares about them . . . [wants women] to be leading suppliers, managers and loyal customers."
Loyal customers perhaps most of all. Leslie A. Dach, executive vice president of corporate affairs for Wal-Mart, additionally noted that the vast majority of Wal-Mart’s customers are women. According to Slate, most of Wal-Mart’s 200 million weekly customers are women, and women control $20 trillion in annual consumer spending.
Accordingly, Wal-Mart has developed five goals designed to help empower women across its supply chain. These goals, which the store hopes to accomplish by 2016, are:
1. “Increase sourcing from women-owned businesses.” Over the next five years, the company will source $20 billion from women-owned businesses in the U.S. That works out to $4 billion a year, a $1.5 billion increase from current annual sourcing from like businesses.
2. “Empower women on farms and factories through training, market access and career opportunities.”
3. “Empower women through job training and education.” Domestically, Wal-Mart will help 200,000 women from low income households to “gain job skills” and “access higher education.” Internationally, Wal-Mart will help 200,000 women through “successful retail training programs.”
4. “Increase gender diversity among major suppliers.” Wal-Mart intends to work with its professional service firms and major supplies to increase female and minority representation on Wal-Mart accounts.
5. “Make significant philanthropic giving toward women’s economic empowerment.” The company will support the above-listed programs with over $100 million in grants that will drive progress against economic goals.
Additionally, the company has established country-specific goals in those international markets in which it operates. For example, Wal-Mart China is “helping women farmers make their agricultural operations more sustainable and productive through its direct farm program.” In Brazil Wal-Mart is, apparently, hiring female construction workers to build it’s new superstores.
More information about these programs can be found here.
One needs only to watch the beautifully produced and absurdly predictable promotional webcast announcing the women’s initiatives to surmise that Wal-Mart’s first priority is probably its own public image, and not women’s well-being. That said, whatever the motivation, these programs seem admirable. A substitute for treating its domestic workers equitably? No. But admirable nonetheless.
In short, it’s hard to find fault with someone pledging billions of dollars to women’s issues. And so I sat, trying to find fault with Wal-Mart, but feeling on whole surprisingly positive toward the company. (The promotional video is working!)
Finally, though, I did think of one problem. The trouble with trying to help “women,” broadly, is that – as Wal-Mart’s promotional video actually makes clear – women are in such different situations worldwide. (See Katharine Bartlett and Deborah Rhode's chapter in the book Gender and the Law on non-essentialism.) In certain communities mentioned in the video, like China, throwing money at inequality through literacy programs and sex education classes will probably have a positive influence on both first-wave issues such as attaining legal rights and third-wave issues such as how men perceive women within that culture. But in other communities discussed, such as Arkansas, throwing money at the problem may not change either of these things. In those places, it may not be law or financing but our common social philosophy that needs to change.
No matter how hard it tries, corporate policy can't dictate national or regional culture. At the end of the day, it seems that Wal-Mart's problem may be, fundamentally, all of our problem.