How Religion Shapes Sex Discrimination at Wal-Mart

Plaintiffs took a beating last Tuesday during opening arguments before the Supreme Court in the landmark Dukes v. Wal-Mart class action suit—no big surprise from the Court that gave us Citizens United (2010).

But as a nationwide assault on workers’ rights continues, it’s worth remembering the role that gender and religious views of gender play in the fate of labor.

And experts say there’s little doubt that religion played a role in shaping the “Wal-Mart Way” on gender. (Recent stats show that two-thirds of the company’s employees are women, while 86% of its managers are men.) According to Professor Bethany Moreton, author of the highly praised To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Harvard, 2010:

It is striking that even among the six named plaintiffs in Dukes v. Wal-Mart, four are born-again Christians—that is, even among women suing Wal-Mart for sex-based discrimination, the multinational’s reputation as a Christian company held real appeal.

To many of the women who worked in low-wage jobs at Wal-Mart over the years, a Christian company signalled a fair workplace and an institution whose values they could enthusiastically endorse. Wal-Mart paid managerial homage to the concept of “servant leadership,” which justifies authority on the basis of willingness to serve rather than command. This same strain of thought was essential to the evangelical and fundamentalist emphasis on”submission” and “headship” in marriage, a way to maintain hierarchies by teaching husbands and fathers that their position required them to honor and model the “servanthood” of Christ—and of the women in their own homes and workplaces.

Like any ideology, it was more an ideal than a reality; in the case of low-wage work and discriminatory patterns of pay and promotion, it makes a mockery of the whole idea. But it is a reminder that recognition on the job— in this case recognition for the work of service performed by these women both a home and at Wal-Mart—is a perennially important concern for everyone who works. Many of the Dukes women who embraced the company’s Christian identity would also say that there is no contradiction between honoring service and paying and promoting service employees fairly. I assume that’s what many Christian Wal-Mart employees hope to achieve in this suit, alongside their non-evangelical colleagues.

Clearly, for the folks up top at Wal-Mar,t Jesus, jobs, and justice (to cite another important book bearing on the Dukes case) do not go hand in hand.