Walmart and Women: Why the Discrimination Suit Matters

Last Updated Apr 8, 2011 7:19 AM EDT

Walmart's treatment of female employees is under fire, both in the courts and in the media. The corporate behemoth has about a billion reasons to closely examine its corporate policies and their store-level implementation.

But it's not just Walmart. We should all be scrutinizing workplace gender discrimination. American women make about 77 cents to each dollar men make for doing the same job -- and this case shines a light directly on such discrepancies.

I asked four female executives I've met through this blog what they think of the suit -- and where they think we are in the battle for equality in the workplace. Here's what they said:

J.T. O'Donnell, CEO, CareerHMO.com The case is important because it is making the issue more public, more visible. Regardless of the outcome, employers will hopefully become more aware of whether they are being fair and objective with respect to gender equality. The impact will be significant -- win or lose. There's going to be backlash. I think the more important issue is how we as women will deal with the outcome. Will we be good winners? Will will be good losers? What will we do after to try to continue to make things right and fair?

Does [sex discrimination] still exist at the board room level? Yes. Does it still exist in certain male-dominated industries and jobs that, by their nature allow companies to get away with it? Yes. But at the same time, women are leading the front on getting degrees in America, more men are impacted by the layoffs from the current recession, and young women are earning more than young men in Corporate America.
Carolyn Hughes, VP People, SimplyHired.com Now more than ever, regardless of your chosen field, the odds that you'll end up with a female boss have never been higher. While all discrimination cases are certainly unique and important, sex-based discrimination in the workplace is becoming less apparent, purely "by the numbers." Subtler, less visible discrimination issues (such as equivalent pay for equivalent responsibilities, or, as evidenced by the allegations of this case, equivalent upward mobility) still persist.

And while it's good to see legislation intact to continue forward progress on these issues in the workplace for women, it is difficult to comprehend how the complexity and unique circumstances of individual promotional situations can be aggregated to include a class of one-and-a-half million people. Culture, however, can be a very powerful catalyst for behavior, and if there is some evidence to indicate that the corporate culture favored "the boys club" in a meaningful way, then the class-action nature of the suit may have merit.
Sara Sutton-Fell, CEO of FlexJobs.com It's incredibly difficult to change the corporate norm, and the magnitude of this suit gives it the possibility of doing just that in regards to corporations' awareness of discrimination based on gender. If [the plaintiffs] win, I believe corporations will have to take a more proactive approach towards equal promotion of opportunities to both sexes within their companies. I hope it will remove some of the historical acceptance of subtle (let alone overt) sex discrimination. If they lose, I think it will be a disappointing loss for the viability of class action discrimination claims, which have shown to be a critical vehicle for change against big corporations.

It seems to me that motherhood and family have a large part to play in the discrimination, because our employment laws do not validate motherhood as an important part of an employee's life, let alone as an important part of our society's economic health. With the U.S.'s dismal paid maternity leave policies (which lands us very near the bottom of the list in comparison to other countries, both developed and developing), I believe it sends a message that economically. women are not valued to be contributing to the society by having children and raising families. This is an unfortunate and short-sighted view, which puts women at a disadvantage in the workplace.
Gayle Abbott, President & CEO, Strategic Alignment Partners, Inc.
I do not think sex discrimination is nearly as prevalent in the workplace as it was 20 years ago or even 10 years ago. We see significant numbers of women in high level professional and executive positions (positions they absolutely weren't holding 15 to 20 years ago) who are well and fairly compensated in relation to the work they are performing and others performing similar work. We see more and more companies see the value of hiring and promoting the best qualified individuals regardless of gender or race.
That being said, I have seen environments such as in some rural, blue collar, or very traditional industries run by "old school" managers where the environment is more conducive to the potential for sex discrimination.

I would be surprised if a case of this nature would be the one to really make a difference. Managers don't necessarily want to hear nor do they change their ways just because of the threat of lawsuit. In fact, some will become even more hesitant to hire those people they fear in the first place.
Why do YOU think of the Walmart case? Please sign in below and share. And for more career advice, follow @MWOnTheJob on Twitter.
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    Amy Levin-Epstein is a freelance writer who has been published in dozens of magazines (including Glamour, Self and Redbook), websites (including AOLHealth.com, Babble.com and Details.com) and newspapers (including The New York Post and the Boston Globe). To read more of her writing, visit AmyLevinEpstein.com.

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