Wal-Mart scored a big victory on Monday when the Supreme Court threw out the largest sex-discrimination case in U.S. history. Still, the nation's biggest private employer has been forced to address the issues raised in the suit.
Since the sex-bias lawsuit was given class action status in 2004 on behalf of 1.6 million women, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has set up a women's council that represents each of the overseas markets and focused training and other efforts on advancing women into management roles. As a result, Wal-Mart says the percentage of entry and midlevel women managers has increased over the past five years from 38.8 percent to 41.2 percent.
During a conference call with journalists Monday, Gisel Ruiz, executive vice president of People at Wal-Mart's U.S. stores, said that she has seen the advancement opportunities grow for women, who make up 57 percent of the Bentonville, Ark. company's workforce. She noted that Wal-Mart has created specific training and mentoring programs to help prepare women for opportunities at all levels in the company.
For example, the women's council, which is made up of about 20 executive women, was started in 2009 and meets periodically during the year; it offers guidance to the top leaders of each of the country's divisions on everything from training and development to promotions. Ruiz says the company also has training that helps women develop such skills as negotiating with peers and suppliers.
"I have been part of that development," said Ruiz, who started as a management trainee 19 years ago. "This will continue."
The Wal-Mart lawsuit, citing what are now dated figures from 2001, said that women are grossly underrepresented among managers, holding just 14 percent of store manager positions compared with more than 80 percent of lower-ranking supervisory jobs that are paid by the hour. Wal-Mart had responded that women in its retail stores made up two-thirds of all employees and two-thirds of all managers in 2001.
Some analysts say Wal-Mart is moving in the right direction, but the company has a ways to go. They note that there is only one woman among CEO Mike Duke's 11 direct reports: Susan Chambers, executive vice president of the company's people division.
And while the Supreme Court's decision throws out the class action suit, it doesn't end litigation for Wal-Mart, which is expected to keep fighting sex-discrimination cases on a smaller scale. Last year, Wal-Mart agreed to pay more than $11.7 million in damages in an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suit that alleged that the retailer systematically denied female applicants to all Kentucky distribution centers from 1998 through Feb. 2005.
"Wal-Mart is far more friendly toward female employees than before the lawsuit," says Michael Hicks, associate professor of economics at Ball State University and author of a book on Wal-Mart's economic impact. Still, "The incentive to be squeaky clean hasn't gone away."
Hicks says the entire retail industry has lagged behind other fields in promoting women __ even though they make up the majority of the industry's workforce. According to data from the National Retail Federation, 60.7 percent of part-time workers are women. But out of 72 retail companies with annual revenue volume of at least $100 million, there are six female CEO's, according to Russell Reynolds Associates, a retail recruiting company.