It's time to put more women at the top of the supply chain

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By Kevin O'Marah, Chief Content Officer, SCM World.

Increasing the number of women in leadership positions in public companies improves profitability. Men and women work in different ways, bringing different strengths to the table, so it makes sense that gender diversity means better business decisions. So, why is the supply chain profession still struggling to attract, retain and recognise female talent?

To put things in perspective, according to our own poll of global universities, women accounted for 37% of students enrolled in university supply chain courses. Yet when you analyse Fortune 500 companies, only 5% of the top level supply chain positions are held by women.

Things don't improve as you look further down the managerial line either. A similar gender imbalance exists among those roles that serve as a stepping stone to the top, with 56% of businesses having fewer than one in five supply chain supervisor positions filled by females.

Although these statistics are disheartening, it would seem that perception is not the problem. 71% of global supply chain professionals believe women have a different natural skillset than men, and of those, 91% consider these skillsets to be advantageous to working within supply chain management. So how is it that so few females are in the top jobs?

Look behind the numbers

Supply chain is often seen as a numbers game. And it can be all too easy to boil down female representation in the industry into a list of percentages and statistics. While this is helpful to start a conversation about just how important the issue is, change will only happen once there is a real world impact and action is taken as a result.

Ultimately, for companies to build more equality there needs to be a bigger commitment from those in leadership positions to find and develop a strong and diverse talent pipeline. Beth Ford, Group Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Land O'Lakes, accurately summed up the issue, saying that "senior leaders have a critical role to play: they must sponsor high potential women, which means actively working to position them effectively; understanding the challenge presented; and being direct in counselling about the importance of mobility and flexibility on their career trajectory".

Collaboration is key

What's interesting to note however, is that skills and traits that are typically defined as 'female' are often the ones that are most beneficial when it comes to working in supply chain. Collaborative skills are especially important. The ability to effectively negotiate and work with multiple stakeholders, whether this is internally among marketing, engineering and supply chain, or externally between trading partners, is key to smooth and efficient supply chain management.

Essentially, supply chain is about balance, not dominance. And the true leaders in the field are able to find this balance consistently. In my experience, women are far better at collaboratively working to achieve a common goal, and often will take the role of bringing about collective success even if it comes at their own expense in terms of recognition and advancement.

Working in a way that leverages the skills of everyone involved in the supply chain process means people are better informed and equipped with everything they need to ensure a high-functioning supply chain. Supply chain leaders should reward those employees who can see the bigger picture and are able to find a way for the team to win as a whole, instead of just individually.

The building blocks

From my years working with supply chain professionals and many hours spent discussing how to best promote gender equality in the industry, a few key points have stood out.

Quotas

If you say the word quota in terms of employing women, it can spark a lot of debate and draw quite strong opinions from both sides of the argument. Yes, some may say it goes against the traditional approach to merit-based career advancement, but it has been pointed out time and time again that a specific numerical target is most likely needed to really make change happen.

Mars, Cisco and Deutsche Telekom are just some of the companies that have set targets (40% is typical) for women in leadership positions. While just blindly filling these spots won't benefit anyone, it is essential to have this kind of benchmark to spur action within the industry.

Promoting work/life balance

It goes without saying that balancing work commitments with everyday life is key to ensuring better gender representation in supply chain. Countries like Finland legally require companies to offer parents of either gender up to three years' leave. And men are also increasingly likely to take on the stay-at-home parent role. Both these things are likely to assist women in progressing further in their career.

Support career progression

There is a critical junction in many women's careers where they are often left to choose between family and full-time employment. It's important that businesses provide ongoing assistance with career planning, advocacy and general job support. A number of companies have programs in place, for example Cisco has iWise, Mars has Women Leading Powerfully and Lenovo has WILL, that help keep women on track during the critical transition from a director position to VP.

Looking at the future of supply chain and considering the hugely beneficial skills women can bring to the table, it's high time we knock down the barriers currently faced by the majority of females. To truly succeed and make a difference to the world's biggest issues, the industry will require a new generation of skills, and that will rest of creating an equal and diverse leadership.

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