When Walmart customers sniffle, the economy catches a cold; look at what's happening now. And when America's largest company and the world's largest retailer puts its might behind something with a huge corporate commitment, it arguably changes the globe.
Walmart has done so over the last several years in areas as diverse as its environmental footprint, low-price prescriptions, "food deserts" in inner cities and the spread of organic and locally sourced products.
Bolstering those corporate citizenship commitments, today the company announced that it is going to put similar if not greater oomph behind a new program to better women's economic empowerment around the world.
The program includes increased sourcing from women-owned businesses in the United States and elsewhere, skill-development programs for factory workers, retail training of 400,000 women worldwide, an effort to increase gender diversity among major suppliers, and a vow to make significant philanthropic giving toward women's economic empowerment.
The external initiative also includes country-specific goals, from Brazil to China — but is it doing enough for the women in its own ranks?
The staggering sum it's committing — it will spend $20 billion over the next five years with women-owned businesses — is all about empowering its suppliers, but there's no mention in these women-centric goals of Walmart doing anything new to empower its female staff members.
While the company has had a global diversity office since 2003, it took the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out, earlier this year, a class-action lawsuit that alleged a pattern of sex discrimination by the retailer in the careers of thousands of current and former women working at Walmart. Clearly the view of Walmart leadership, including CEO Mike Duke and its board, is that the company's treatment of female managers and other employees has been just fine.
Not buying it: the activists at Making Change at Walmart, who responded with a statement that read in part:
Walmart’s latest PR gambit is trying to cover up decades of unjust treatment of women, but women know better. Walmart causes systematic economic harm to women in the U.S. and around the world, and that is precisely why Walmart is trying to sell us on a new image. Walmart keeps millions of women in the U.S. and around the world in poverty, fails to protect women from unacceptable sexual and other forms of workplace harassment and works many women to the bone in sweatshop conditions around the globe. And, according to the women in the Dukes v. Wal-Mart gender discrimination law suit, Walmart pays women less than men.
The women who work at Walmart and for Walmart’s suppliers know better than to believe the company’s propaganda. In July, Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) released what is believed to be the first-ever nationwide poll results exclusively of current Walmart employees. The poll, conducted among 501 “Associates,” as Walmart non-salaried employees are known, shows that by nearly every measure, women fare worse at Walmart —whether it’s pay, respect, retirement benefits, training for promotions, job security or fair procedures for disciplining, firing or laying off workers.
Today's streamed web announcement was promoted with a huge social push, including an #empowerwomen push that seemed to resonate on Twitter and Facebook:
Yet it's not difficult to see that, in announcing this new estrogen-laced initiative, Walmart had an eye toward this black mark on its record. At the very least, the unrest that led to the lawsuit identified a gender-based weak spot in the corporate worldview that needed to be shored up. So, voila!
"We want women to view us as a retailer that is relevant to them and cares about them," Duke stated. Of course, women are typically the CFO of the household, deciding where to shop and how much to spend, so this campaign to woo women business-owners is also about wooing the majority of its customers.
More important, perhaps, was that Duke and the rest of the company's brain trust take seriously the reality that, when Walmart moves in a big way, so does the world. Walmart "is putting to work the same model for making a difference that it has used to take on big issues like hunger, healthy foods and sustainability," the company's statement said.
And despite other initiatives such as microenterprise programs that have been launched for women by other companies and by governments, this is an area that still needs help. So kudos to Duke & Co. for putting their money where women's mouths are — although critics may not feel they're doing enough for women inside the company.
Below, check out some of the videos that Walmart released today in support of this new campaign — and let us know what you think in the comments below.