Walmart’s New Jobs Approach Could Be Undermined by Gender Bias
Walmart (WMT), the largest private employer in the country, just spent the last eighteen months overhauling its career website, the first step in what it’s calling a “recruitment to retirement” overhaul. But while the retailer says the changes will help bring increased diversity to its workforce, an analysis of the jobs posted to the company’s careers site between January and March finds more than half the listings used gender-biased language.
Jacqui Canney, the company’s executive vice president of global people, said the new strategy puts sustainability, diversity, and inclusion at the heart of hiring. “The stats don’t make you feel very good about how long it would take to reach [gender] parity,” she said, “but I think we can make a big impact.”
The site itself now features more images of women and people of color and prominently links to Walmart’s diversity page. It also includes tourism-style profiles of regions, like Northwest Arkansas, where its Bentonville, Ark. headquarters is located.
To fully comprehend the enormity of Walmart’s workforce—and, as a result, the massive impact of how it hires—consider this: If you include Sam’s Club, one in every 100 working Americans collects a paycheck from the retailer. It is second only to the U.S. federal government in terms of size and has an employee roster more than three times as long as McDonald’s (MCD), the next largest employer, with which it shares hundreds of store footprints.
In an attempt to get a sense of how effective the revamped site is likely to be in terms of attracting diverse candidates, Fortune and Textio analyzed thousands of Walmart job descriptions between January and March.
Textio uses an algorithm that ingests 10 million job openings a month, looking for language patterns and using them to generate scores that predict how quickly a job will fill and how prevalent gender-biased language is in the post.
After collecting and analyzing 4,400 U.S.-based Walmart job postings, Fortune found that the language in 51% of job descriptions is more likely to appeal to men than women. That imbalance tips even more as openings travel up the corporate ladder, where 53% of manager positions and 84% of the director-level job descriptions skew male.
Twenty-six percent of the 599 managerial positions, excluding trainees, had a gender bias rating that qualified them as very masculine.
Of the 49 director jobs analyzed by Fortune—including a user experience director in San Bruno, Cal. and a global accounting director at the retailer’s Bentonville home office —only seven used language that qualifies as neutral. One was categorized as feminine.
The rest, 84%, were masculine. And 20 of the director level positions used language that Textio described as very masculine.
“You should expect we’ll continue to grow our point of view and get better,” said Canney, when asked to comment on Walmart’s gender bias scores.
Textio’s algorithm generates an overall score to rate how well a job post will perform against similar wanted ads. For example, an ad for a store manager opening in Chicago with a score of 75 will be filled faster and attract more qualified candidates than 75% of retail store manager listings in the same city, according to Textio.
Gender tone gets scored on a sliding scale from -1, very masculine, to 1, very feminine, with 0 representing a neutral score. Four other categories, slightly and somewhat feminine or masculine fill out the scale.
One of the ways the algorithm rates jobs is by looking for clichéd language, said CEO and co-founder Kieran Snyder. Her favorite examples: words like “ninja” and “rockstar.”
“It turns out that if you used them in a job post five to six years ago, yes, they absolutely exerted a bias. In fact, women in particular were less likely to apply for jobs containing those words. Those words got a really bad PR campaign. Basically everybody was like ‘Hey, avoid those words.’” she said. “And so nowadays, if you use them in a job post, they exert an even more negative impact on the percentage of women who apply for the job, simply because six years ago those words were everywhere.”
On average, Walmart’s overall gender bias score of -0.3 isn’t all that different from some of its competitors.
Amazon’s average gender bias score was the same, earning it a slightly masculine designation. Target (TGT) and Best Buy (BBY) earned 0.08 and 0.16, respectively, meaning their average job post uses neutral language.
Outside of the retail sector, tech companies have spent the past couple years struggling between a rock—releasing dismal workforce diversity numbers—and a hard place: taking criticism for not releasing their numbers at all. Meanwhile, Walmart has been putting out a regular diversity and inclusion report since the early 2000s.
The report almost always boasts that the majority of the retailer’s associates are women (see page 6 here). But that gender representation starts to degrade in the management and corporate officer categories.
Looking beyond workforce demographics, the retailer has a mixed record when it comes to social issues.
Yet the company has also faced claims of gender discrimination. Last year five women “reached a confidential settlement” and voluntarily withdrew their 15-year-old gender discrimination lawsuit against the retailer. Six other women, who were part of the suit before it lost its class action status, have announced their intent to pursue the case.
Walmart has also been at the center of politically-charged conversations about the overall U.S. workforce and companies’ appetite for domestic investment. In his first address to Congress on late February, President Donald Trump took credit for Walmart and other companies having announced “billions and billions of dollars” of U.S. investment.
He was almost certainly referring to a January press release from the company, saying it plans to create 10,000 retail jobs at 59 new or expanded Walmart and Sam’s Club stores, and 24,000 construction jobs in 2017.
Like the rest of the retail industry, growth for Walmart doesn’t necessarily mean increasing its physical presence in American communities. After adding over 500 retail locations in 2015, Walmart slowed the growth of its brick and mortar outposts to 75 stores in 2016 and said in mid-January it expects to create or update a relatively modest 59 stores in 2017.
Instead, Walmart will be increasing and retraining staff to support e-commerce services like Online Grocery Pickup. Launching such programs triggers a wave of changes, said Canney.
“You need someone to put the merchandise in a cart. Associates need to be skilled in omnichannel,” she said, referring to systems that track in-store and e-commerce sales to manage inventory. “You need people with technical skills to support the apps customers are using to pick the goods they want. It’s a connected supply chain that impacts everyone from the home office all the way down to the store.”
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Health will be another key area for Walmart, she said.
Roughly half the jobs Fortune analyzed were in the health and wellness category, consistent with the retailer’s status as the third largest pharmacy in the U.S. after CVS and Walgreens.
Karen Short, managing director and Walmart analyst at Barclays, said health services like eye centers and pharmacies have always been a big driver of foot traffic for the company.
“I think the thing to keep in mind when you think about a supermarket, especially if you’re a high-frequency shop like Walmart, is that your more loyal customer is a pharmacy or optometrist customer. The food basket size is significantly higher than a non-pharmacy customer’s,” she said. “If you can offer very attractive prices for pharmacy and optometry, and then you’ve got the customer in the door.”
The health category intersects with another area Walmart intends to grow: distribution center and tech talent to support commerce that doesn’t always happen in a physical store.
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“Our customer is now shopping wherever they want and whenever they want,” said Canney. “We’ve had to beef up, enhance and add to our tech capabilities.”
Positions at distribution centers, which will be critical as the company positions itself to challenge e-commerce giant Amazon, accounted for 29% of all the jobs Fortune analyzed.
Customers can now use the Walmart mobile app to get their prescriptions filled at a special area of the counter, said Canney. Keeping all of those apps running will also drive hiring in the technology and software development, and merchandising and online operations categories, which accounted for 8% of the jobs in Fortune’s analysis.
Making sure women find and compete for those opportunities has been important to Tom Wait, senior vice president of talent acquisition.
“That’s been a passion of mine, personally. I’ve sponsored, even before I was in recruiting, a Society of Women in Engineers event. The more I do it, the more I realize you really have to get involved,” he said. “This isn’t a problem that’s going to go away quickly, gender diversity in STEM. You’ve seen Walmart take a lot of steps towards addressing that.”
Short, the Barclays analyst, said she hopes the gender bias findings startle Walmart into action.
“I hope they recognize they need to make it more inclusive,” she said. “I work in an industry where I’m frequently the only woman in the room. It shouldn’t be that way.”
Shameel Arafin, Director of Platform Engineering, Kevin Ramsunder, News Developer and Robin Muccari, Digital Designer, contributed to this article.