Walmart: fight back or PR stunt?

It is hard not to be cynical about the recent announcement by Walmart, the world’s largest retail company, that it plans to use its enormous “size and scale to help empower women across its supply chain”.

The scheme – which Walmart has dubbed its Global Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative – involves doubling the money the company spends with women-owned businesses, providing women around the world with job training and access to education and approaching its biggest suppliers to use more women and minorities on work they do for the company.

These are noble goals, and I am fully in favour of policies that support women-owned businesses and programmes and improve the lives of working women. But coming just a few months after the US Supreme Court threw out a class-action sex discrimination lawsuit against Walmart, the initiative smacks of a PR stunt.

The lawsuit alleged unfair treatment of women in the workplace and cited a pattern of discrimination in pay and gender-biased promotions at Walmart. Writing in the FT in June, Philip Delves Broughton wrote: “women at Walmart fill 70 per cent of the hourly jobs in its shops, and make up only 33 per cent of management. Women are paid less than men in every region and the salary gap between men and women widens over time.”

However, the court ruled that Walmart’s women workers did not constitute a single class for the purposes of a discrimination suit.

Ted Boutrous, Walmart’s lawyer, said at the time, the ruling would be “very helpful in bringing back sanity to class action law in all different types of areas.”

Fast forward to September and the company is championing a new plan to make sure that “women view Walmart as a retailer that is relevant to them and cares about them,” according to Mike Duke, the company’s chief executive.

I spoke to Detlev Suderow, a senior lecturer at Brandeis International Business School, and an expert in the field of human capital management, to get his reaction to Walmart’s news. He told me that the programme is an “underwhelming PR action”.

“The job of the HR department is to make sure that its company has fair and equitable hiring and advancement policies, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it keeps their companies out of legal and financial trouble.”

One component of the programme is a pledge to “empower women through job training and education”. The company plans to help 200,000 women from low-income households around the world to gain job skills and access higher education.

“They are spending a lot of money training women in factory and retail jobs around the world, but traditional labour is changing and we are going to have many fewer women who are willing to take that kind of job,” says Suderow.

“Companies will soon be facing a shortage of human capital, and anything Walmart can do now to build relationships with low-cost human capital is a smart move, but this is nothing breakthrough. This is just what strategic HR is supposed to do.”

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