On a Friday morning in June 2009, Walmart’s then-Chief Executive Officer Mike Duke stood in front of thousands of employees and shareholders at a star-studded corporate gala and announced that the world’s largest retailer needed more female leaders. His pledge to make changes would have a major unintended consequence — a setback for Black representation.
Duke that day unveiled a global women’s council designed to help boost the share of women in senior leadership roles, then at 27% — a glaring disparity, when women made up more than half of Walmart’s U.S. workforce. Jump forward 11 years, and Walmart has boosted that share to nearly one-third. Meantime, the share of Black leadership roles has recently declined.
Walmart’s focus on women — spurred by a class-action gender discrimination lawsuit — left Black men and women on the outside looking in, according to a half-dozen African-American former associates who worked at Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. These people, who requested anonymity as some still live there and all fear retribution for criticizing the nation’s largest employer, depicted an environment where promising Black staffers repeatedly failed to break into the company’s officer ranks, while White women gained, buttressed by a strong career-development network.