In its never-ending effort to use culture war issues for political advantage, the American Right has a new favorite target: woke corporations. This is the derogatory term conservatives have seized on to attack those portions of Big Business that have decided to show concern about issues such as racism, sexism and inequality.
This is one of those debates with a lot of empty posturing on both sides. Corporatist Republicans are pretending to be fire-breathing critics of the Fortune 500. Chief executives who are still preoccupied with profit above all are pretending to be social reformers.
Since behavior counts more than public statements, let’s look at the track record of large corporations when it comes to the issue at the center of wokeness: their treatment of women and people of color. One has only to look at some of the cases in the news over the past couple of months to get an indication of what really goes on in the business world.
Recently, for example, Google agreed to pay $118 million to settle litigation that accused it of systematically underpaying its female employees. The lawsuit, originally filed in 2017, alleged that the company put women into lower career tracks than their male counterparts, resulting in lower salaries and bonuses. Once a judge granted class action status to the plaintiffs—something that some similar suits against tech companies failed to achieve–it was almost inevitable that the company was going to have to make a substantial payout.
This case is not the only instance of discrimination allegations against Google. In 2021 a branch of the U.S. Labor Department found evidence of compensation and hiring discrimination against female and Asian applicants for engineering positions. Google had to pay out $2.5 million in back pay and set aside $1.25 million for pay-equity adjustments. The company is also defending itself against a lawsuit accusing it of racial discrimination.
In another major discrimination case, Sterling Jewelers recently agreed to pay out $175 million to settle a long-running lawsuit accusing it of underpaying and underpromoting tens of thousands of women at its stores. There were also accusations of sexual harassment at the company.
Not long ago, a federal court approved a consent decree entered into by the gaming giant Activision Blizzard to resolve an action brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in response to reports of sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination and related retaliation at the company. The company is paying out $18 million.
Activision is being acquired by Microsoft, which has had its own discrimination issues. In May, the same Labor Department agency that fined Google required Microsoft subsidiary LinkedIn to provide $1.8 million in back pay and interest to a group of nearly 700 female employees said to have been the victims of gender-based pay discrimination.
As I documented in a 2019 report, almost all large corporations have been caught up in discrimination cases. While many of the cases are resolved through confidential settlements, I was able to show that 189 Fortune 500 companies had paid a total of $1.9 billion to resolve private litigation or cases brought by federal government agencies since 2000.
There is no indication that the policies that gave rise to those cases have come to an end. In fact, the main problem with woke corporations seems to be that they are not woke enough.