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An employee scans items at a cash register at a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. location in Burbank, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017.

Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Walmart Inc. just named two female executives to top jobs even as women are becoming more scarce overall at the nation's biggest private employer.

Judith McKenna takes charge this month of the retailer's international business while Rachel Brand is joining the company from a senior U.S. Justice Department post to head global governance. Both women will report directly to the CEO. They are the latest examples of women entering its executive ranks, 10 years after the company pledged to make diversity a signature issue amid allegations of widespread gender discrimination that were ultimately dismissed by the Supreme Court. While the company earned plaudits last month for expanding its parental-leave benefits, and last week named a female technology executive to its board, such allegations continue to plague the company and have resurfaced in a recent Florida lawsuit.

Despite the advances of women executives, and no matter how the legal tussles play out, one thing is clear: Female representation among Walmart's 1.5 million-person U.S. workforce has declined, according to federal filings.

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The falloff reflects Walmart's evolution from a five-and-dime retailer to one more focused on selling groceries, which now account for almost 60 cents of every dollar of U.S. sales. While women hold about 60 percent of jobs at general-merchandise retailers, they account for just under half at grocery stores, according to federal data. That's due in part to the unionized workforce of many grocers other than Walmart, which remains staunchly anti-union. Union membership tends to lean more male than female. Another reason is the types of products sold in department stores (think apparel, jewelry and cosmetics).

"Walmart is increasingly in the grocery business," said Marc Bendick, a labor economist who has studied the gender and racial diversity data Walmart and other big companies file annually with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. As that shift happens, "their utilization of women simply starts to look more like traditional grocery stores and less like department stores."

Having fewer female employees generally makes it tougher for women to rise into high-level jobs, according to Bill Bielby, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has testified in class-action employment-discrimination cases and has reviewed Walmart's EEOC data. The Bentonville, Arkansas-based company's divergent trends indicate that "something deliberate is happening at the middle and upper ranks," he says.

Walmart spokeswoman Tricia Moriarty said she could not confirm or deny that the retailer's shift to selling more groceries has changed its gender makeup. The company has thousands of new jobs that are more often held by women, she said, such as 18,000 so-called personal shoppers who walk the aisles to pick and pack orders for its online grocery service, which is now in more than 1,100 stores. Also, 62 percent of the more than 225,000 graduates so far from its new training academies are women.

Many women have thrived at Walmart. Tina Budnaitis, the manager of a 400-employee Walmart Supercenter in Rogers, Arkansas, near its headquarters, said having female mentors has helped her advance from her first job 15 years ago as a part-time photo-lab employee while in college. Budnaitis, who has also served as a regional human-resources manager, said she's never heard any female colleagues complain about discrimination.

Women's Council

Budnaitis was able to advance largely without the help of the training academies, which didn't exist in 2009, when then-Chief Executive Officer Mike Duke created a global women's council tasked with developing female leaders. At the time only 27 percent of the company's senior executives were women. "No one should be left out," Duke said in a speech at the company's annual shareholders meeting that year.

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But some still say they are. Some rank-and-file women, including cashiers and customer-service desk staffers, claim they're missing opportunities for advancement, according to a survey of 1,000 current and former female employees conducted last year by OUR Walmart, a labor advocacy group. More than four out of 10 women said "getting the same pay and opportunity as men at my store" was a concern of theirs, the survey found.

"As women, we should have the same opportunities as men," said Carolyn Davis, a Walmart employee in North Carolina. "This is 2018, there is absolutely no excuse why we should be discriminated against."

Walmart countered with its own survey of store-level female employees, conducted by a third party last year. There, 83 percent of the more than 600,000 women who responded said they were "aware of the career opportunities available to me" at the company. Also, the share of hourly-worker promotions that go to women increased to 57 percent in 2016 from 54 percent in 2012, according to the company's diversity reports.

'Critical Skills'

"Walmart is proud to be a place where more than a million associates have the opportunity to gain critical skills for advancement," Moriarty, the Walmart spokeswoman, said.

Both surveys were conducted before the retailer's recent move to boost its minimum hourly wage to $11 and expand benefits including paid parental leave and adoption credits. Meanwhile, the women's council that Duke created has evolved into a broader group that addresses diversity and inclusion, chaired by CEO Doug McMillon. Walmart faces challenges there, too: The Human Rights Campaign recently suspended the company's perfect score for LGBT corporate equality after two federal complaints alleged it hadn't protected transgender employees from discrimination.

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"We're starting to get results on the issues, but they don't respond in the moment," said Andrea Dehlendorf, a co-director of OUR Walmart. "Equitable access to full-time, higher paying jobs will continue to be an issue this year."

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