Don’t blame Wal-Mart for society

Last week the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 (9-0 on part, but the important part was 5-4) against a class action suit against Wal-Mart by it’s female employees for pervasive sex discrimination.   This interesting Op-Ed in the Times basically paints Wal-Mart as an evil company, but it also strongly suggests to me that they are not guilty of systematic sex discrimination– at least not based on the statistics commonly cited.  Women are 70% of hourly workers, but only a small fraction of managers.  On the surface, it would suggest sex discrimination, but it’s not.  Here’s why:

There are tens of thousands of experienced Wal-Mart women who would like to be promoted to the first managerial rung, salaried assistant store manager. But Wal-Mart makes it impossible for many of them to take that post, because its ruthless management style structures the job itself as one that most women, and especially those with young children or a relative to care for, would find difficult to accept.

Why? Because, for all the change that has swept over the company, at the store level there is still a fair amount of the old communal sociability. Recognizing that workers steeped in that culture make poor candidates for assistant managers, who are the front lines in enforcing labor discipline, Wal-Mart insists that almost all workers promoted to the managerial ranks move to a new store, often hundreds of miles away.

For young men in a hurry, that’s an inconvenience; for middle-aged women caring for families, this corporate reassignment policy amounts to sex discrimination. True, Wal-Mart is hardly alone in demanding that rising managers sacrifice family life, but few companies make relocation such a fixed policy, and few have employment rolls even a third the size.

The obstacles to women’s advancement do not stop there. The workweek for salaried managers is around 50 hours or more, which can surge to 80 or 90 hours a week during holiday seasons. Not unexpectedly, some managers think women with family responsibilities would balk at such demands, and it is hardly to the discredit of thousands of Wal-Mart women that they may be right.

Obviously, I disagree with the conclusion of the article’s author.  It would be sex discrimination if Wal-mart’s policy was not based on something inherent to their business model.  But it is about their business model.  They want their new managers to be assigned far from their home stores and to work hellish hours.  There’s surely some business sense in that and it’s entirely within Wal-Mart’s rights to require that.  The fact that women are much less likely to accept a position in those circumstances– mostly due to social expectations about child-rearing, etc.,– is about society, not Wal-Mart.  It would seem absurd to me, liberalism run amok, in fact, to require Wal-mart to work its new managers less because that is disproportionately hard on women raising families.  The disproportional burden on women has to do with how our society shapes gender roles.  What needs to change is that we need men who are much more supportive with child-rearing and as spouses.   And, for the record, as the author argues there’s surely something to be said for unions to keep employers from abusing workers.  This Op-Ed suggests to me that Wal-mart is not a nice company, and one that I would never want myself of a loved one to work for, but not guilty of legal sex discrimination based upon these facts.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

4 Responses to Don’t blame Wal-Mart for society

  1. Mark says:

    It’s all well and good to say that gender roles in society need to change. But that will never be possible if Wal-Mart, one of the biggest and most influential companies in the world (and yes, also the most evil), doesn’t change its practices.

    Wal-Mart is still at fault. Their culture discriminates against women. Getting companies like them not to do so is how we get society to change. If people think it’s ok for Wal-Mart to have these policies because that’s what the business model dictates, then they will continue to think that women shouldn’t be part of that model.

    P.S. Wal-Mart is the devil.

    • Steve Greene says:

      I just don’t see how you can hold them legally responsible for sex discrimination based upon these policies. How is Wal-Mart legally at fault for placing these expectations on their managers?

      • Mark says:

        I guess it’s a fine line. Legally, it seems to me like their practices equate to inherently unequal treatment between men and women. Women need to be given the same opportunities as men and not be discouraged from advancing. That may not be the best argument, but I’ll take it since I have 4 Supreme Court justices on my side.

        More importantly, Wal-Mart’s apparent lack of concern for female workers is troubling and regressive. The fact that the vast majority of people could care less that they continue to make record profits and be a force in the marketplace by being terrible to their workers and destroying competition says a lot about our country and the “free market.”

  2. Steve Greene says:

    I don’t disagree with about Wal-Mart in general, but legally speaking, I do not think it is right to blame them for larger ills of society. Women do have the same opportunities as far as advancing to management, but, again, due to larger social issues, they are much less likely to take those opportunities. Now, if Wal-Mart said “all managers need to be at least 5’8″ and able to lift 100 pounds” that’s obviously discriminatory (since they are managers, not furniture movers) in a way that requiring re-location and long hours is not.

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