Career Advice HR Focus

Empower play

Walmart’s global drive to develop and advance women is paying off

Two years ago, Walmart, the world's largest retailer and currently the second-largest public corporation, took a good look at its various diversity and inclusion policies and decided to take a big leap forward.

That same year, the company formally launched its Global Women's Economic Empowerment Programme that included, upgraded and united a number of initiatives that it had been running for several years. The programme was designed to empower women through training, supporting gender diversity at major suppliers, and increasing sourcing from women-owned businesses in the company's major markets.

Close to 80 per cent of the 245 million people who shop at Walmart stores around the world every week are women. Additionally, in Asia, 67 per cent of the company's 140,000 staff are women.

"It is women who drive Walmart's business," says Scott Price, president and chief executive of Walmart Asia. "Once we came to this realisation, we understood that we have a responsibility to ensure that internally we are optimally aligned to foster the growth and development of women leaders. At the same time, we felt an alignment would be needed with our external responsibility efforts, which are also a big part of the global programme. This is an issue very close to our business and we have responsibility to lead in the area."

The company set up clearly defined targets to be reached by 2016, five years after the programme's implementation. These include doubling the size of goods sourced from women-owned businesses, working with major suppliers to both increase gender diversity and provide better opportunities for women and minorities, and training nearly a million women on farms and in factories in the US, China, India and Latin America to help them have better access to career opportunities and the market.

"These programmes will be funded with more than US$100 million in grants," Price says.

Walmart chief executive Mike Duke had already laid down the foundations for the empowerment programme soon after he ascended to his position in 2009 by creating the President's Global Council of Women Leaders. The body's objectives were to expand inclusion initiatives across all of the countries within Walmart's operations, develop and advance women leaders, build a pipeline of female talent, promote inclusion, and invest in women externally. This global council holds together local ones that had already been set up in each of markets in which Walmart operates in 2008, with the goal to increase female talent at the company by 30 to 40 per cent.

"The councils cover various topics such as diversity awareness, job-skill enhancement, opportunities and career paths, mentoring, and recruiting," Price says. "Shanthi Flynn, our senior vice-president of HR, and I host quarterly regional meetings to ensure that our initiatives fit the needs of our female talent and align with our global goals."

Walmart received several awards in 2010 and 2011 for the work it had done to empower women in the organisation. Since 2007, female representation among market managers has jumped 92 per cent, and by 42 per cent for in-store managers. In China and Japan, the number of female employees has reached 65 and 69 per cent, respectively, against national averages of 45 and 42 per cent.

"We see great progress in Asia with women taking up important lead roles. In China, for example, women make up 39 per cent of our management - well above the national average. In India, China and Japan, approximately 30 per cent of the direct reports to the chief executive are women. In Hong Kong, nine out of my 21 direct reports are also women," Price says.

He adds that employee opinion surveys show that the level of engagement at Walmart is always higher than national averages, as well as the retail industry average as a whole. "We believe this success is partly attributable to our efforts in empowering our female associates," Price says.


Scott Price explains how and why companies should start their own women’s empowerment programmes

Go beyond work boundaries “When we empower women to rise out of poverty, we are not just helping one person, but often an entire family.”
Lead from the top "[Having the global chief executive pioneer the case] means everybody in the organisation takes notice.”
Maintain constant oversight “It’s important to have the right team in place that can oversee these initiatives on a day-to-day basis.”
Keep track of results “There are a number of metrics that we use to measure our success, and very often we will benchmark these to the national average or against other Fortune 500
companies. But, ultimately, success is measured by the results we are able to achieve.”