by Max Brantley
An op-ed in the New York Times, considering the end of the class action sex discrimination lawsuit against Walmart, says the complaint was symptomatic of a historically patriarchal, authoritarian and evangelical Protestant leadership that creates harsh pressures for all employees, but particularly low-wage employees who happen to be predominantly female.
Indeed, the sex discrimination at Wal-Mart that drove the recent suit is the product not merely of managerial bias and prejudice, but also of a corporate culture and business model that sustains it, rooted in the company’s very beginnings.
In the 1950s and ’60s, northwest Arkansas, where Wal-Mart got its start, was poor, white and rural, in the midst of a wave of agricultural mechanization that generated a huge surplus of unskilled workers. To these men and women, the burgeoning chain of discount stores founded by Sam Walton was a godsend. The men might find dignity managing a store instead of a hardscrabble farm, while their wives and daughters could earn pin money clerking for Mr. Sam, as he was known. “The enthusiasm of Wal-Mart associates toward their jobs is one of the company’s greatest assets,” declared the firm’s 1973 annual report.
A patriarchal ethos was written into the Wal-Mart DNA. “Welcome Assistant Managers and Wives” read a banner at a 1975 meeting for executive trainees.
Even if the company explicitly counsels against gender discrimination today, other circumstances make the company unavoidably hostile to women's advancement, the article argues.
There are tens of thousands of experienced Wal-Mart women who would like to be promoted to the first managerial rung, salaried assistant store manager. But Wal-Mart makes it impossible for many of them to take that post, because its ruthless management style structures the job itself as one that most women, and especially those with young children or a relative to care for, would find difficult to accept.
Why? Because, for all the change that has swept over the company, at the store level there is still a fair amount of the old communal sociability. Recognizing that workers steeped in that culture make poor candidates for assistant managers, who are the front lines in enforcing labor discipline, Wal-Mart insists that almost all workers promoted to the managerial ranks move to a new store, often hundreds of miles away.