Thursday, June 23, 2011
Fascinating Insight into Wal-Mart's "Authoritarian" and Anti-Woman Management Style
By Claudia Ricci
Wal-Mart has become the mega-successful retailer it is today by relying on an "authoritarian" corporate culture and a management training system that make it very difficult for women to become store managers.
This is the insight offered by Nelson Lichtenstein in his fascinating op-ed in yesterday's New York Times.
Lichtenstein, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business, describes the "authoritarian culture" that has fueled Wal-Mart's expansion ever since it opened its first stores in the Ozarks back in the 1950s and 1960s. "A patriarchal ethos was written into the Wal-Mart DNA," according to Lichtenstein.
Example: at one executive trainee meeting back in 1975, a banner read: “Welcome Assistant Managers and Wives.” That men-centered Wal-Mart culture has been a central reason for the company's success (according to Wal-Mart's own Don Soderquist, the company’s chief operating officer in the 1990s). Despite what the Supreme Court ruled on Monday -- throwing out a giant sex discrimination class-action lawsuit against Wal-Mart -- those keep-women-in-their-place rules are still operating strong for the retailer. As Lichtenstein explains it, if you want to step up out of the ranks of the hourly worker, and become a salaried assistant store manager (and plenty of women do) for Wal-Mart, you have to be willing to move hundreds of miles away to work in another store. More often than not, women -- because they care for children and older family members -- are just not in a position to do that.
Says Lichenstein: "For young men in a hurry, that [move is] 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."
Even when women do become managers, they fight gender discrimination, as I discussed in Tuesday's Huffington Post.
In 2007, pharmacist Cynthia Haddad, of Pittsfield, Massachusetts,won a $2 million lawsuit against Wal-Mart, where she had worked for 10 years. In that case, Massachusetts lawyer and employment practices expert Julie Moore testified on behalf of Haddad, suggesting that Wal-Mart's policies and practices "contributed to the gender discrimination that culminated in this pharmacy manager's termination."
The retailer fired Haddad claiming that a fraudulent prescription had been filled when she left the pharmacy unattended.
Haddad was able to show that Wal-Mart had axed her because she had demanded that they pay her the same manager's salary that her male colleagues earned. Oh, and about that fraudulent prescription? It was filed a year and a half before Haddad was fired -- she'd never even been told about her so-called mistake.
In 2009, Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court upheld the verdict in this precedent-setting case.
The idea that an individual woman could sue the wildly powerful Wal-Mart and WIN $2 million is one heck of an inspiring story in a small Massachusetts town. Haddad, the mother of four children, told Business Week magazine that the lawsuit was no picnic. Still, Haddad had a lot going for her. She was a relatively well-paid professional and her husband, Bill, is also a pharmacist. She had the education, intellectual wherewithal, financial independence -- and the guts -- to complain in the first place, and then to mount a lawsuit after she was unjustly fired.
But that's not the situation for so many other low-income cashiers and hourly employees who aren't in such privileged positions. So many women don't have the luxury to dare risk losing their jobs by filing a complaint. Those are the women who have been screwed by the Supreme Court's ruling Monday in the sex discrimination lawsuit. The court, ruling in a 5-4 decision, blocked a giant class action lawsuit on behalf of 1.6 million women who accused Wal-Mart of systematic gender discrimination.
What a court.