Walmart’s women’s empowerment program has been hailed in the press as “extraordinarily significant,” with the potential to be “… the greatest feminist triumph ever driven by private industry.” The program made headlines in the mainstream press and was named “Best Empowerment Program” by the American Chamber of Commerce. The World Bank Group Gender Strategy Platform supported the program as a model for other corporations.
Success may have been measured by the distance traveled by female Walmart workers who protested discrimination by male managers, filing the company’s largest class-action lawsuit in history. But a closer look at the program reveals a collection of actions that are, at best, irrelevant to women working at Walmart, and at worst, damaging to women’s status in the workplace. This is an example of what we call gendering in our recent article Gender and society. She uses women’s status as carers to fix corporate images. Walmart outsources this work to business owners in its supply chain.
Walmart’s Empowerment Program purchased $20 billion in products from women-owned businesses and recruited owners to testify that Walmart empowered them. We analyzed these testimonials, which were captured on video, and the material on the Empowerment website hosting them. The site features slogans such as: “Empowering women is the right thing to do” and “When women succeed, everything succeeds.” We find three themes in these responses: they celebrate women’s rags-to-riches economic mobility, portray their relationships with Walmart agents as harmonious, and represent women’s authority as caring and selfless. Walmart is using these themes to describe its supply chain as feminist, countering public criticism of Walmart for paying retail workers low wages, destroying family-owned retailers, and pressuring suppliers who in turn squeeze workers. This empowerment campaign was a reaction to the bad press about Walmart that existed before Walmart filed the class action lawsuit. Although the class action was unsuccessful, the case damaged the reputation of the company, whose main market is women. Walmart’s empowerment program, launched three months later, created a counter-narrative to reshape the public’s perception of the company.
The campaign uses the success of several female business owners in Walmart’s supply chain as evidence that Walmart is empowering women. This gendering reflects a pattern of companies using women as moral ambassadors to restore their brand virtue after causing social harm (to women, workers, the environment, etc.).
However, gendering tells us little about why companies choose certain empowerment programs to enhance their reputation. We argue that Walmart’s gendering strategy is based on its position in the global economy, particularly its power over an international chain of 6,000 suppliers. Walmart outsources the work of “empowerment” to women in strategic structural positions in the supply chain.
Walmart uses the idealization of gender and femininity to obscure class interests that otherwise divide women. In the videos and throughout its empowerment website, Walmart highlights the ways in which female business owners stand out for feminine norms such as empathy, caring, nurturing and mothering ethics. This stereotype of female selflessness creates high expectations of caring, which burdens women by reinforcing the norm that they behave differently than men in the capitalist enterprise. This campaign is potentially exploitative because the perpetuation of female stereotypes raises the bar for selfless work for women. Meanwhile, how women business owners behave in a similar way to men is overlooked. In the end, the Walmart owners’ control of their supply chain is transformed from a reputational liability to a virtue, as women talk about the ways Walmart has supported their businesses.
Like many corporate campaigns, the Women’s Empowerment campaign has run its course and been replaced by issues more relevant to today’s news cycle. Walmart has taken up the issue of racial justice through its public relations campaigns. After protests against police killings of black people, the company pledged 100 million Walmart employs more black Americans than any other company, and these workers face exploitative conditions similar to other workers, compounded by racial discrimination. We look forward to investigations into “race-fixing” by such companies.
Eileen Otis is an associate professor of sociology at Northeastern University. She is the author of an award-winning book Markets and Institutions: Women, Service Work, and the Construction of Inequality in China. Her research was published American Sociological Review, Politics and Society, and American Behavioral Scientist, among other magazines. She is currently working on a book about Walmart’s retail operations in China.
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