Wal-Mart Pledges Billions To Business Women

Walmart publishes pro-women iniativesWal-Mart's reputation among women has taken a battering in the last decade, embroiled in a class action lawsuit on behalf of 1.6 million female employees, the biggest civil rights case in history.

The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately rejected the suit this summer. The female workers didn't have enough in common, according to the decision, to represent a class of people.

But women in general do have something in common. They are, by and large, the primary shoppers for their families, and the majority of Wal-Mart Inc.'s 200 million weekly customers. Wal-Mart knows this, and on Wednesday, published an extensive set of pro-woman initiatives. It seems that Wal-Mart women may not be a class enough to harm, but they are a class enough to help.

The world's biggest private employer has set five goals to "help empower women across its supply chain." Wal-Mart will first buy more from women, and buy a lot. The store intends to put $20 billion (more than the GDP of Estonia) into the pockets of female-owned businesses in the U.S. over the next five years, and to double its sourcing from women suppliers internationally. And for the women working in the factories and farms of those suppliers? Wal-Mart plans to train and empower 60,000 of them.

Women who work for Wal-Mart or might work for Wal-Mart? Thanks to the company, 200,000 of them in the U.S. and another 200,000 around the world will get training and education. Women who have some contact with Wal-Mart in a professional service capacity? There'll be more of them. Wal-Mart will pressure companies to put more women and minorities on their accounts. And women who have nothing do to do with Wal-Mart? They might benefit from the $100 million in grants that the company is giving away to female empowerment organizations.

It's extraordinarily generous and exceptionally timed, although Wal-Mart claims the campaign has nothing to do with the decade-long, hyper-public case against the company, and the fact that many of the women involved in the suit may still pursue individual claims of discrimination.

Some critics scoff and say that the move is mere window-dressing, distracting from Wal-Mart's poor treatment of its employees, particularly female ones. "Wal-Mart keeps millions of women in the U.S. and around the world in poverty, fails to protect women from unacceptable sexual and other forms of workplace harassment, and works many women to the bone in sweatshop conditions around the globe," writes Jennifer Stapleton in a statement for the group Making Change at Wal-Mart.

This isn't Wal-Mart's first public act of reform this year. In January, the store announced that it would lower salt, fat and sugar in thousands of its products, inspired by Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative. Also in concert with the First Lady, Wal-Mart announced its plans to open 300 stores in America's "food deserts," areas where you pretty much have to drive for miles to find a carrot stick.

This latter move drew some criticism from food movement activists, who claim that independent grocery stores, which keep more cents per dollar in the community, should be fostered over a multinational chain with labor practices that have been questioned by President Obama himself.

Wal-Mart isn't the first food provider to recognize that courting women is good business. Earlier this year, the National Corn Growers Association and the United Soybean Board began training female farmers as spokeswomen. Behind the scenes, however, the boards of the five largest lobby organizations, which represent the five largest commodity crops, are only 1.3 percent female. Wal-Mart's a little better. It's board is three women, 12 men.

Regardless of Wal-Mart's motivations, the campaign will improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of women. This doesn't mean, however, that its own female employees won't have things to complain about.

Next:Female Farmers: The New Food Industry Frontier

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