Gender Studies. Wal-Mart and Sex Discrimination

Wal-Mart is one of the biggest retailers involved in anti-ethical issues and violations of workers’ rights and freedoms. Discrimination based on sex and gender differences is the main problem for many workers. The downgrading of women’s work has been a foremost cause of the current status problems of women. Even when women supplemented their families’ income through work at home by taking in boarders, laundry, or children, for example, their efforts continued to go unheralded; it was viewed as a part of their routine household chores. Dukes vs. Wal-Mart was the largest civil rights lawsuit aimed to protect the rights of female employees and prohibit discrimination and harassment.

From a historical perspective, it is evident that capitalism, through its wage-labor system, introduced an important distinction between the sexes: men began to work for wages outside their homes, while women continued to work within their homes without wages. Despite mechanical aids altering the way women work, this did almost nothing to change the type of work assigned to women (e.g., domestic, family maintenance, reproduction, socialization of children). In Wal-Mart, the so-called women’s work continues to be seen by some people as natural functions, instinctive, and of little importance when compared with men’s work. Dukes vs. Wal-Mart case unveils real state of the matters in the retail stores and attitude towards women and mothers. “The suit charges that Wal-Mart discriminates against its female retail employees in pay and promotions. The class, in this case, includes more than 1.6 million current and former female employees of Wal-Mart retail stores in America, including Wal-Mart discount stores, supercenters, neighborhood stores, and Sam’s Clubs” (Wal-Mart Sex Discrimination 2008). In Wal-Mart, discrimination is evident in the promotion and career advancement, pay system, and employment opportunities. “The monetized benefits Wal-Mart employees receive are substantially less than those of unionized grocery store workers in the Bay Area. (For similar results, see Dube & Landsberg, 2004.) Wal-Mart’s average employer’s contribution to health and welfare plans for participating employees in 2000 was $0.86 per hour (based on the most recent publicly available tax return information as of 2003)” (Boarnet 2005, p. 433).

In 2000, the Wal-Mart employee, Betty Dukes, filed a claim against Wal-Mart. The woman claimed that she had worked six years for Wal-Mart and had excellent reviews, but the employer did not provide her with training, promotion, and salary advancements. She was 54 years old and had no chance to be promoted and received a higher salary. In 2001, the plaintiff represented 1.6 million women working for Wal-Mart since 1998. The plaintiff claimed that the employers did not provide adequate training for women depriving them of a chance to be promoted. These cases show that Wal-Mart discriminates against women because of their sex. Discrimination is giving special or preferred treatment to persons who are members of racial or religious or ethnic groups or sex against whose membership generally unjust discrimination was or is being practiced (Michman & Mazze 2001). The original discrimination must have been unjust, for there are many kinds of discrimination that may be practiced that do not involve justice at all, and if no injustice was done, there is no immoral harm that needs rectification. Those who favor reverse discrimination of one or sort usually single out blacks, Chicanos, and women as deserving of it (Ferdinand 2007).

Dukes vs. Wal-Mart unveils that gender discrimination takes place in many Wal-Mart stores. Wal-Mart follows sexism strategies characterized as the process of assigning life roles according to gender. This system fosters sex-related roles that usually relegate men to positions of authority in government, industry, education, science, and business. Although sometimes used only in reference to prejudice against females, sexism means any stereotyping resulting in arbitrary discrimination against females or males (Ackman 2006). Dukes vs. Wal-Mart shows that sexual harassment is unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature. Sexism respects neither race nor color nor culture. It can be compared with racism in that it identifies a portion of the population and designates them “different” and, therefore, inferior. Sexism, like racism, involves the combination of power and prejudice. “Women are treated as second class employees at Wal-Marts from Florida to Alaska. This is not just an isolated or local problem. Wal-Mart has known about this for years and has refused to act” (FOR RELEASE 8:30 A.M. 2008). Wal-Mart assumed that men are generally ascribed to leadership positions because of their greater physical strength and speed needed. Male dominance and female passiveness have remained in cultural, institutional, and individual practices even though technological advancements have negated strength and speed as required factors of dominance (Michman & Mazze 2001).

Dukes vs. Wal-Mart shows that both sexism and racism have been documented in Wal-Mart by trade unions, but racism has received more attention in the news media; consequently, minority males have gained more in the area of social justice (Ackman 2006). in 2007, Wal-Mart was accused of unfair labor practices and exploitation of women workers. In 2007, the US Women Chamber of Commerce sent a Letter to the Courts of Appeal in support of the Dukes vs. Wal-Mart case. The Letter states that: “a class action provides the only feasible means for women to address gender inequality against the world’s largest employer” (FOR RELEASE 2008). The case of Duke v Wal-Mart shows that companies that have contracts with the federal government are bound by law to hire and promote regardless of race and sex; most companies have until recently done a better job locating, hiring, and integrating minority males into their workforce. This is not to suggest that the racial struggle has been won, but only to note priorities. In addition, it should be noted that sexism exists within racism, thus becoming a double problem for minority women (Chamallas, 2007). Countless men and women accept the stereotypes that (1) women work only to earn extra spending money, (2) women who work take jobs away from men, (3) women are absent from their jobs because of illnesses more than men, and (4) women are too emotional to supervise subordinates. These stereotypes cause many employers to question female workers’ commitment to work. And men are more likely than women to be perceived as “serious” about their careers. This places the extra burden on women to convince employers that they are not job risks. In Wal-Mart, female assistants are responsible for training the new male executives; however, because assistants belong to a certain sex, age, or racial group, they may find themselves discreetly blocked from joining the management staff, as well as locked into a dead-end job (Michman & Mazze 2001).

Wal-Mart hires low-qualified women but does not provide them with adequate and sufficient training. Many women have the skills needed for upward mobility, but their skills are not reflected on personnel records or in job descriptions. Thus, a sex barrier is created, especially if there is a lack of initiative on the part of male administrators to give female workers recognition when it is due. This leaves female workers locked into a few job categories. But males are not the only culprits. “The Dukes vs. Wal-Mart case is supported by 110 detailed sworn statements from women who worked in 184 different Wal-Mart stores in 30 different states and included the testimony and exhibits gleaned from more than 100 Wal-Mart managers and executives who were deposed” (FOR RELEASE 8:30 A.M. 2008). Some women who achieve supervisory positions also discriminate against women. Ultimately, countless women were discriminated against, discouraging other women from thinking of themselves as having potential for higher-level jobs. These employees become so convinced of their limited abilities that they lose the initiative to apply for training and promotion. They become a prophecy that fulfills itself. The effects of this not-too-subtle type of discrimination are evident in the higher ranks of many administrative staffs (Friedman 2005). In upholding San Francisco District Court Judge Martin Jenkins’ decision, the Ninth Circuit noted that plaintiffs “present significant proof of a corporate policy of discrimination and support Plaintiffs’ contention that female employees nationwide were subjected to a common pattern and practice of discrimination” (Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores 2008).

It is common for female employees in Wal-Mart to be subjected to unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Although not illegal per se, such behavior is illegal when it is used by managers and supervisors to decide whether to hire or fire someone; when it is used to determine pay, promotion, or job assignment; and when it creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment (Reuter, 2006). If an employee submits to a sexual request and receives job benefits from it, then the employer may be sued by the other employees who were equally qualified but denied similar benefits. Sexual harassment is an outgrowth of individual and institutional sexist behaviors. Often it takes a considerable amount of courage for women to report harassment. Sexually harassed workers are embarrassed, intimidated, and demeaned. They become victims of external stress and frequently suffer from headaches, stomach pains, and inability to concentrate on job-related activities (Friedman 2005). Extreme stress leads to increased absenteeism, loss of efficiency, and reduced productivity. Employment turnover also increases because many harassed workers quit their jobs, and rehiring and retraining costs go up.

“Managing diversity” is fast becoming the corporate watchword of the decade not because corporations are becoming kinder and gentler toward culturally diverse groups but because they want to survive. Along with shifts in the organization, demographics come additional competition. Some white male employees must now compete against people they did not consider rivals before–mainly women, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. Even though they still control most of the managerial positions, many white males sense an impending loss of job entitlements. For many white male employees, the central measure of diversity is “ability” or “merit.” Numerous surveys document that most white males do not object to women, minorities, and other underrepresented people being hired or promoted if they are the best-qualified people (Reuter, 2006). Unfortunately, when women and minorities, in particular, are appointed, some white males are quick to cry “tokenism” or “reverse discrimination.” Often, in these instances, white males project a higher standard of “best qualified” for women and minorities than themselves. Contrary to some critics, black workers are still the last hired and the first fired. There is no conclusive evidence to support the assumption that white males are more productive workers than minorities and women. Qualified minorities and women are routinely passed over for jobs and promotions in favor of less-qualified white males. If equal opportunity is a worthwhile goal, as most Americans believe, it will be achieved through structured outreach, recruitment, training, retention, and promotion affirmative action, valuing diversity and managing diversity (Wal-Mart Sex Discrimination 2008).

Since the vast majority of senior executive positions are held by white males, and since they are responsible for most of the hiring and promotions, it is reasonable to focus on them as the alpha and omega factors of American workforce decisions. The values white male executives tend to internalize–individuality, unwavering toughness, control, and dominance are not generally the qualities Third World peoples and women value (Wal-Mart Sex Discrimination 2008). Even in interpersonal situations, white males tend to dominate or at least they try to. Equally telling is their reluctance to admit errors or to apologize for them. Females fare even worse than minority-group males when competing with white males for the dominant (white, male, middle-class) society success goals. The unconscious disdain males often have for females is ingrained in literature. Today’s managers are mainly products of this kind of fantasy. And so, too, are today’s employees. One of the more significant conclusions gleaned from the many studies reviewed is the need for procedures to aid and assist female workers in adjusting to their work environment (Reuter, 2006). All employees have feelings, emotions, and attitudes that directly influence the quality of their work (Friedman 2005).

In sum, racism and sexism in Wal-Mart stores cause minorities and women to correctly be negative about their job opportunities. There is an irritating downside for “stuck” females: With relatively few female mentors in most organizations, female executives also find few male mentors. And some male mentors are hesitant to sponsor women because the relationship may be misinterpreted as sexual.


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Chamallas, M. 2007, Discrimination and Outrage: The Migration from Civil Rights to Tort Law. William and Mary Law Review, 48 (1), 2115.

Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores 2008. Web. 

Ferdinand, A. 2007, Wal-Mart Determined to Lead in Corporate Social Responsibility. 2008. Web.

FOR RELEASE 8:30 A.M. (EST) 2008, Web.

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Michman, R. D., Mazze, E. M. 2001, Specialty Retailers: Marketing Triumphs and Blunder. Quorum Books.

Reuter, A. A. 2006, Subtle but Pervasive: Discrimination against Mothers and Pregnant Women in the Workplace. Fordham Urban Law Journal, 33, 1369.

Wal-Mart Sex Discrimination. 2008. Web.

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