Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Worker's Rights at Wal-Mart by Liza Featherstone


Rating: (Recommended)




Click on title or picture to buy from amazon.com








Journalist Liza Featherstone examines the stories behind the landmark Wal-Mart class action case in her new book, Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Worker's Rights at Wal-Mart. While there is a Wal-Mart side to the story that isn’t told on these pages, Selling Women Short, presents a compelling story of sexism and discrimination at Wal-Mart in the form of stories of women around the country who have been exploited by their beloved employer. In case after case, women were paid less than male counterparts, were denied training, were not considered for promotion, and were told to stifle their ambitions. The dissonance between the company’s stated values and the way these women were treated becomes resounding on the pages of Selling Women Short.


Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter  4, “ALWAYS  LOW WAGES!” pp. 125-133:


“I hate injustice,” says Kathleen MacDonald, a 47-year-old widow. Just five feet tall, with snow-white hair, she’s not afraid to speak out, even to a representative of the U.S. military. Recently an Army recruiter called and wanted to speak to her grown son. MacDonald, who did not support the invasion of Iraq, gave him a piece of her mind. “Why don’t you call some of these rich children?” she demanded. He hasn’t called back since.

MacDonald has worked as a sales clerk and stocker for 14 years in a Wal-Mart in Aiken, South Carolina (Strom Thur­mond’s birthplace), not far from the Georgia border. She was a cashier and clerk at Kroger, a grocery chain, for a cou­ple of years before coming to Wal-Mart. MacDonald has worked in Wal-Mart’s toys, housewares, pets, lawn and gar­den, and stationery departments, and now the candy depart­ment. She likes her work at the Aiken store and has no ambition to become a manager. “I don’t need the stress,” she says good-naturedly.

Yet MacDonald says, “When I do a job, I take pride in doing it.” She consistently earns excellent evaluations, and she likes keeping her department neat. Most of all, she says, “I like talking to people.” She was pleased with the training the company provided: “You were very well trained in the mechanics of keeping the merchandise on the shelf straight and clean and priced.” But she’s seen more than a few injus­tices in the store, and Wal-Mart, like the Army recruiter, has been finding out just how she feels.

“At my store, male associates brag about their pay,” she testified in her Dukes class-member statement. After listen­ing to enough of them brag, MacDonald began to realize that if they were telling the truth about their wages, she was being paid less than men who were doing the very same job, even though she’d been with the company longer. When she complained about this, the meat department manager told her that males stocking groceries make more money than fe­males stocking “female” items because “stocking cans was harder than stocking clothes.” Another supervisor told her that women would never be paid more than men because they “don’t physically stack up.”

MacDonald was no stranger to Bible Belt sexism. Having grown up in a Catholic family in Chelsea, Massachusetts, a working-class city on the other side of the Mystic River from Boston, she moved down to South Carolina with her hus­band and her mother in the early 1980s. Her mother had grown tired of the cold weather in New England, and her husband thought a small town might be a better place to raise children than Chelsea.

“I’m not gonna lie about it,” she says, “I’m a Yankee, a lib­eral.” She confesses to some culture shock living in a small town down South: “Everything is a sin here. We cannot sell general merchandise till one-thirty on Sunday. You can’t sell alcoholic beverages after midnight on Saturdays or Sundays. No gambling.”

But of all cultural peculiarities, it is gender relations in the region that MacDonald has found most troubling, and she still isn’t used to its old-fashioned hierarchies. She was not raised to be subordinate to men. “My mother ruled the roost,” she says proudly. The only girl, with four brothers, MacDonald played baseball, and her brothers were taught to do chores. “My mother taught my brothers just like she taught me: how to cook, how to wash clothes, how to wash dishes,” MacDonald says. “There was no discrimination whatsoever, just because they were boys.... And I’ll tell you that if you ask their wives, they’ll tell you that it was the best thing she could have ever done. And my father never told my mother how to think, how to act, what her opinion was.” MacDonald says she has tried to instill similar ideals in her kids, two daughters and a son, now in their twenties. Her own marriage was egalitarian, like that of her parents: “My husband never told me how I should vote, what I should be­lieve,” she says. “He understood that I was my own person.”

With that kind of attitude, MacDonald stands out in Aiken—and at Wal-Mart. “Women here won’t speak up for themselves,” she laments in the heavy Boston accent she still has after 20 years in the South, and notes that women she knows in Aiken even let their husbands tell them how to vote. “If their husbands believe one way, they are expected to believe the same way.” Still, nothing could have prepared MacDonald for the extraordinary explanation her depart­ment manager, Joel Batson, provided for the different pay rates between men and women in the store. Women, he told her, “will never make as much money as men.” Surprised, MacDonald asked why. Batson explained, “God made Adam first, so women will always be second to men.” Years later, MacDonald was still incredulous. “This is what he tells me! Isn’t it incredible that you could believe this crap?” She adds, “He agreed some men take it to the extreme—when they beat their women.”

Awful as MacDonald’s story seems, the data, according to experts hired by the Dukes plaintiffs, tells an even worse tale. In February 2003, Richard Drogin, the expert statistician hired by the plaintiffs, examined promotion and pay patterns in most of Wal-Mart’s major U.S. operations from 1996 through the first quarter of 2002. He reviewed the complete job histories of 3,945,151 workers. In 2001, the average woman working full-time at Wal-Mart earned about $5,000 less annually than the average man at the company. In every single region of the country, men made at least $2,200 more than women. At Wal-Mart, Drogin concluded, women make less money than men, not only because they tend to hold lower-paying positions, but also because they earn less money than men holding the same jobs.

In the September 2003 class-certification hearing, Brad Seligman, the plaintiffs’ lead counsel, stated: “It’s. . . undis­puted on this record, that [Wal-Mart’s] female retail store employees, hourly and salaried. . . are paid less than men in every year since. . . 1996, and in every region of Wal-Mart, and that female employees on average are paid less than male employees in virtually every major job position in the retail stores.”

Of all the charges that make up the Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. suit, the one that most people will find the simplest to grasp—and perhaps the most disturbing—is that women are paid less than men doing the same jobs. One can argue about whether women want to be promoted as much as men do—and much of the outcome of Dukes will depend on who wins that argument—but no one can doubt that they’d like to be paid just as well for doing exactly the same work. Cashiers are the lowest-paid workers at Wal-Mart, and 92.6 percent of them are women. Yet even the company’s (few) male cashiers make more money than their female counter­parts: $14,525, as compared to $13,831.

Female hourly workers at Wal-Mart earned about $1,100 less per year than male hourly workers. Women’s total lower earnings are partly explained by their working fewer hours, as many more women than men do work part-time. But that’s not the whole story. Women’s hourly rates were, on av­erage, 30 cents per hour lower than those of men. The aver­age national wage for male cashiers at the company, $8.33 per hour, is higher than that for women, $8.05.

Female managers, all of whom must work full-time, aren’t living on poverty wages, but they still are subjected to pay discrimination, as Stephanie Odle learned from that fateful peek at her coworker’s tax form. Drogin found that the over­all difference between all male and all female managers’ compensation is about $14,500, and some disparity was found at every level of management. A male assistant man­ager makes on average $39,790, whereas a woman doing the same job makes on average $37,322.

Numerous testimonies from women support Drogin’s data. Micki Earwood, one of the original Dukes plaintiffs, was overjoyed when she finally landed a job as a personnel manager in the Urbana, Ohio, Wal-Mart. An outgoing and sympathetic “people person,” she had coveted the position for years, knowing she would be good at it. “Anybody who was my friend in that store knew how badly I wanted that job,” she recalls. Sadly, she now says, the personnel job taught her how badly women at Wal-Mart were treated, for she saw all her coworkers’ files and observed that men were paid better than women who worked in exactly the same po­sitions. “I was trusted with a lot of information,” she says, “and the problem is that the more you know, the more dis­gusted you get at the company, if you’re someone who doesn’t put blinders on or isn’t brainwashed.”

She bore no personal ill will toward her male coworkers— in fact, they were her friends. “I really got along with these gentlemen who made better money,” she says, “and you know, they discussed it with me. They knew what I made, and they’d joke about it. I’d say, ‘Hey, I don’t begrudge you making good money. I just think the rest of us ought to be making what you’re making.” Once she was proud to work at Wal-Mart, but now says, “If I wasn’t part of this lawsuit, I’d never tell anybody that I worked there. I’m ashamed that I worked for a company that treated people that way.”

As a woman advances upward in Wal-Mart’s hierarchy, she actually faces ever more dramatic pay disparities with her male counterparts. The higher the management job, the greater the gap in percentage terms. It is relatively small between male and female management trainees, the gateway to the assistant-manager position, which is Wal-Mart’s entry-level management job. But it becomes ever more marked at the store-manager level, where males earn $105,682 and women 16 percent less ($89,280); even more so at the district-manager level ($239,519 to $177,149), and downright staggering for regional vice presidents ($419,435 to $279,772, a difference of 33 percent).

“I had the title but not the pay,” says Gretchen Adams, who, as a comanager (second-in-command to the store man­ager), opened 27 Supercenters. “They take us for idiots.” Adams worked for the company for eight years, supporting her son and her disabled husband, and relocated her family eight times at Wal-Mart’s request. Blonde and athletic, Adams gives an impression of physical strength and formi­dable competence. At Wal-Mart, she trained men with little to no relevant experience, who then earned starting salaries of $3,500 a year more than her own. Working as a coman­ager in Las Vegas, she learned that two of her fellow co­managers, who had no more experience than she, earned about $47,000 each, while she made $43,500. When she complained, she got a raise (to $47,000), but no retroactive pay, and no explanation. What made her especially angry was that she asked the company to conduct a review to see if other women were also being underpaid and received no as­surance that such a study would take place; indeed, as far as she knows, it never did.

The gap also widens the longer a female hourly worker stays at Wal-Mart. According to Drogin’s report, female hourly workers start behind male hourly workers who start at the company at the same time, and they fall progressively further behind. A female hourly worker is paid 35 cents less per hour than a man hired to do the same job. And after five years at Wal-Mart, that man makes $1.16 per hour more than she does. “That’s what happens in the store,” says Betty Dukes. “You and I have the same hire date, but you’re living and I’m barely existing.”

Many women are paid less than men who are newer to the company. “It just makes you sick,” Earwood says now. “I would see a two-year associate who was a male bike assembler, and he was making more than a female department manager who’d been there eight or nine years. There was no way they could justify that to me.” Christine Kwapnoski, the Dukes plaintiff who is now an assistant manager in Concord, Cali­fornia, was consistently paid less than men who hadn’t been in their jobs as long, and despite a stellar performance, she often did not get merit raises that were given to men. A frequent Sam’s Club Associate of the Month, her apartment is clut­tered with appreciation plaques for, among other things, converting Pace supermarkets in California to Sam’s Clubs. This isn’t unusual: the earnings gaps exist despite women’s superior per­formance evaluations, and despite the fact that pay is supposed to be based partly on performance. In 2001, performance ratings of women hourly workers were higher overall than those of men, and for the major hourly positions—sales associates, cashiers, department managers—women scored higher than men doing the same jobs. In 75 percent of hourly jobs, women scored better than their male counterparts.

It’s not only that women do not have pay parity with men in the same job: frequently, women earn less than men who are in positions of lesser responsibility. Melissa Howard, the Indiana store manager who was dragged to a strip club, came to Wal-Mart in 1992 with six years of Kmart experience, much of it supervisory. Hired as a Wal-Mart department manager at $6 an hour, she worked her way up and became a store manager in 1998. Running a Supercenter in Bluffton, Indiana, Howard supervised a man with no Wal-Mart expe­rience who made $65,000 a year, $15,000 more than her own salary. Furthermore, as a new hire he was given three weeks of vacation; Howard had to work at Wal-Mart for seven years to get the same amount of vacation time. Another man Howard supervised was hired at a salary exceeding hers by $10,000.


The status of the class-action lawsuit continues to evolve, and we’ll be hearing more about it in coming months. In the meantime, the stories in Selling Women Short will shock many readers, disappoint some, and cause many to shake their heads. The unanswered question is whether it will lead to improved conditions for women in the workplace at Wal-Mart and elsewhere.


Steve Hopkins, February 25, 2005



Buy Selling Women Short at amazon.com

Go To Hopkins & Company Homepage



Go to 2005 Book Shelf

Go to Executive Times Archives







ã 2005 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the March 2005 issue of Executive Times


URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/Selling Women Short.htm


For Reprint Permission, Contact:

Hopkins & Company, LLC • 723 North Kenilworth AvenueOak Park, IL 60302
Phone: 708-466-4650 • Fax: 708-386-8687

E-mail: books@hopkinsandcompany.com