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Fascinating story in the Indianapolis Star in which Melissa Howard, one of the plaintiffs in the gender discrimination suit filed against Wal-Mart, elaborates on her specific complaints, which include being pressured during a trip to Bentonville headquarters with other store managers to go to strip clubs. The paper reports that “at one point during a show, Howard alleges, her district manager proposed that he pay a stripper $50 to have a ‘threesome out back.’ She refused but stayed at the club because, she says, she had no transportation and was scared to complain.” Howard says she feared retaliation if she brought her superiors’ attention to the incident…especially because at least one of the people involved was, in fact, her superior.

“In June 1998,” the Star reports, “Howard was selected as the store manager for a Wal-Mart in Decatur, Ind. While there, she says in the lawsuit, she was required to attend regular district meetings in Fort Wayne, which she alleges often took place at a Hooters restaurant. ‘During the meeting, I was forced to listen to lots of discussion among the male managers about the waitresses' breasts and butts and which sexual experiences they would like to have with them,’ Howard said. She hated it, Howard said, but was humiliated and kept quiet.”

Howard also says that she was asked to resign from her position by a district manager – about whom she had been openly critical in the past – who told her that as a single mother, she ought to be home raising her daughter, not working full-time as a store manager.

The Star also reports that Howard alleges that she was paid less even than men who reported to her – at one point earning $50,000 per year when a new male co-manager with no previous Wal-Mart experience made $15,000 per year more – even though she’d been with the company for seven years.

Meanwhile, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed a suit against Wal-Mart, charging that the company is responsible for the sexual harassment committed by a store manager in Bradenton, Florida.

The suit alleges that the manager groped two of his female employees, make comments to them that we of a sexually suggestive nature, and exposed himself to them. The suit does not charge that Wal-Mart failed to act, but simply says that the company is responsible for his actions. "The conduct was sufficiently severe and pervasive to constitute an intimidating, hostile and offensive work environment," the suit said.

The EEOC is seeking compensation for the women, as well as for Wal-Mart to develop policies that would prevent such harassment from happening in the future.
KC's View:
Sure doesn’t sound like those sweet, Norman Rockwell-like television commercials with which Wal-Mart blankets the airwaves, does it?

Now, let’s be fair about this. The Star acknowledges that not every female Wal-Mart employee feels the same way about the company that Howard does, and that an official company spokesperson – not coincidentally, a woman – says that even if true, these are isolated cases and not in any way reflective of official company policy…which is at least one of the reasons that Wal-Mart hopes that it will be able to successfully appeal the classification of the gender discrimination suit as a class action.

We firmly believe that visits to Hooters and strip joints and proposed “threesomes” aren’t official Wal-Mart policy. But it seems to us that a broader question needs to be answered – whether Wal-Mart has, even inadvertently, created a “good old boys” culture that allows this kind of nonsense to go on. That will be a much harder question for a judge and/or jury to evaluate than the issue of whether something is official company policy.

We’ve known people in our career who delighted in treating women badly, and we’ve known women who played along because they thought that somehow it would make them one of the boys and would advance their careers. It never was official company policy…but the people at the top allowed it to go on just by closing their eyes and turning their heads. Which makes them as guilty as the perpetrators. (In some way, even though we were younger and not in a politically tenable situation where we could have made an issue out of it, we probably share some of the guilt for closing our eyes and turning our head.)

We’re willing to bet that many of the women who read MNB each day are nodding their heads at this, having experienced some level of this disrespect and abuse in their careers…just as we’re pretty sure that there are men out there who are shaking their heads wondering what all the fuss is about.

There are no easy answers to what has happened in the past, and that’s one of the reasons that, in our view, this lawsuit must be heard and given the fullest possible consideration – not just for the Wal-Mart employees who are existing and future plaintiffs, but for our daughters, because they never should have to deal with these issues. Never.