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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The 'Women at the Top' blog is part of a series of online and print publications that focuses on women's achievements in business. With up-to-date news and incisive analysis, the blog will provoke discussion on the role of the world's most prominent businesswomen. www.ft.com/womenblog

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Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

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Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

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Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

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Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

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Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.