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Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers' Rights at Wal-Mart.

Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers' Rights at Wal-Mart

Liza Featherstone Basic Books 288 pp., $25

If you don't already dislike Wal-Mart, this book will give you dozens of reasons to. In Selling Women Short, journalist Liza Featherstone examines Wal-Mart's alleged misconduct toward its female employees and explores the system that has allowed it to persist.

The framework for Featherstone's examination is the nationwide gender-discrimination class action Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. The lawsuit, filed in 2001, alleges that Wal-Mart systematically discriminates, in both pay and promotional opportunities, against its female workers at all levels of the company.

Citing expert reports from the Dukes litigation, Featherstone serves up a seemingly indefensible indictment of the company. "Women make up 72 percent of Wal-Mart's hourly workforce ... but only 34 percent of its managers are women," she writes. Of the lucrative store-manager positions--usually six-figure jobs--women hold only 14 percent, and they hold only 10 percent of higher-level posts. Conversely, 92 percent of cashiers--the lowest-paid employees--are women, Featherstone writes.

Throughout the book, she tells the personal stories of women, many of them plaintiffs in Dukes, who have been held back despite superior qualifications, experience, and ability. For example, Stephanie Odle began her career with Wal-Mart subsidiary Sam's Club in 1991 in Lubbock, Texas. After transferring to 11 different stores to advance her career, she was promoted to assistant manager. Odle learned by chance that her male counterpart earned $10,000 more than her, even though he had substantially less experience in the position and less time with the company.

When she brought this discrepancy to her manager's attention, he told her that the male coworker had a family to support with no regard to the fact that Odle was about to become a single mother. The manager's solution was to ask her for an itemization of her monthly expenses so he could help her budget her money better. Odle ultimately received a raise, but it did not bring her salary up to her male coworker's level.

The author cites many similar examples: women excluded from management opportunities because of archaic notions of religion and family values, women forced to attend business meetings at Hooters restaurants, and female hourly employees made to train men for higher-level positions that women were plainly qualified for but were denied the opportunity to fill. Featherstone's interviews provide a window into the lives, careers, and disappointments of her subjects.

According to Featherstone, the company recognized as early as 1987 that it had an alarmingly small number of women in managerial roles. But, Featherstone writes, it did little to address the problem until 1996, when it undertook a study that revealed that the company had a cultural problem that allowed "stereotypes to limit opportunities offered to women."

Wal-Mart, however, set aside the study and an accompanying report and took no action to rectify the problems they identified. The report resurfaced only after Dukes was filed. Wal-Mart did not, until recently, implement a job-posting system to notify employees of advancement opportunities. As a result, according to Featherstone and the Dukes plaintiffs, the company passed over women for promotion in favor of men preselected by the incumbent, almost exclusively male, upper-management team. Other policies, such as requiring relocation as a condition of promotion to management, also deter women from advancement in the company.

Many women Featherstone interviewed said they were disillusioned by a corporate culture that indoctrinates employees with unquestioning company loyalty. Because Wal-Mart repeatedly professes a commitment to supporting employees and providing advancement to "ordinary folks," dissent is considered disloyal. Internal complaints about discrimination do not fit the company culture. The unfulfilled promises of advancement in exchange for loyalty make these women's personal accounts of discrimination particularly tragic.

The book also champions class actions' positive effect on corporate conduct. It depicts the plaintiffs' legal team in Dukes as crusaders for justice, a refreshing reprieve from the constant attacks on trial lawyers.

Although the book is a compelling read overall, its structure is somewhat disjointed. Little distinguishes the themes of the various chapters. Featherstone also stretches to reach some conclusions that her evidence and citations don't support, so she loses some credibility.

Whatever its editorial shortcomings, however, these women's stories need to be told. Responsible consumers need to know about the discriminatory employment practices of our country's largest retailer.

Selling Women Short is a fascinating look at the struggles of women employees at Wal-Mart--not only for advocates of women's rights in the workplace, but also for anyone with a sense of justice.

ANN-MARIE AHERN practices employment law in Cleveland.
COPYRIGHT 2005 American Association for Justice
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Ahern, Ann-Marie
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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