Wal-Mart is an unadorned eyesore surrounded by a parking lot, even its logo aggressively devoid of flourish. Proving that looks don’t matter, however, the retail giant has a way with women: Four out of ten American women visit one of Wal-Mart’s stores weekly. They like the low prices, convenience and overall ease of the shopping experience. Even snobbish elites are discovering its delights: A few months ago, New York Times fashion writer Cathy Horyn revealed, to the astonishment of fellow urban fashionistas, that much of her wardrobe comes from Wal-Mart (“Marc Jacobs?” “No, it’s Wal-Mart”). Retail consultant Wendy Liebmann ecstatically dubs Wal-Mart the “benchmark by which American women rate all shopping.”
Would that $15 runway knockoffs were Wal-Mart’s primary contribution to women’s lives. But Wal-Mart is not only America’s favorite shopping destination; it’s also the nation’s largest private employer. The majority of Wal-Mart’s “associates” (the company’s treacly euphemism for employees) are women. Their average wage is $7.50 an hour, out of which they must pay for their own health insurance, which is so costly that only two in five workers buy it.
Yet Wal-Mart is not only a horrifyingly stingy employer: Many workers say it is also a sexist one. From the Third World factories in which its cheap products are made, to the floor of your local Wal-Mart, where they’re displayed and sold, it is women who bear the brunt of the company’s relentless cost-cutting. Ellen Rosen, a resident scholar in Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Program, recently observed that around the world, Wal-Mart’s business practices “may be leading to a new kind of globally sanctioned gender discrimination.”
Gretchen Adams worked for Wal-Mart for ten years, in five different states. As a co-manager, she opened twenty-seven “Supercenters” (gargantuan, twenty-four-hour grocery/general merchandise hybrids). “There were so many inequities,” she sighs with amazement, reflecting on her time at Wal-Mart. She saw men with little to no relevant experience earning starting salaries of $3,500 a year more than her own. “I had the title but not the pay,” she says. “They take us for idiots.”
Adams is now a witness in Dukes v. Wal-Mart, in which seven California women–current and former Wal-Mart employees–are charging the company with systematic sex discrimination in promotions, assignments, training and pay. Betty Dukes, for whom the suit is named, is a 52-year-old African-American woman who still works at Wal-Mart. First hired by the company in 1994 as a part-time cashier in Pittsburg, California, she was an eager employee with a sincere admiration for founder Sam Walton’s “visionary spirit.” A year later, with excellent performance reviews, she was given a merit pay raise and a full-time job. Two years later, after being promoted to the position of customer service manager, she began encountering harsh discrimination from her superiors; she says she was denied the training she needed in order to advance further, while that same training was given to male employees. She was also denied the opportunity to work in “male” departments like hardware, and was made to sell baby clothes instead. “I can mix a can of paint,” she told reporters just after filing the suit. “I want the chance to do it.”
When Dukes complained about the discrimination, managers got back at her by writing her up for minor offenses like returning late from breaks, offenses routinely committed by her white and male co-workers, who were never punished, she says. When she kept complaining, she was denied a promotion and finally demoted back to her cashier job. She went to the Wal-Mart district office to complain, but the company did nothing. Being demoted was not just humiliating: It deprived Dukes of other promotions, and her cashier job offered fewer hours and a lower hourly wage. When she was once again eligible for promotion, four new management positions, none of which had even been posted, were filled by men.