Closing Supply Chain’s Gender Gap: Slow Progress in a Fast-Changing Workplace

By: Ken Cottrill, Global Communications Consultant, MIT CTL

Closing Supply Chain’s Gender Gap: Slow Progress in a Fast-Changing Workplace

There is wide agreement that the supply chain community needs more female leaders, yet closing the profession’s gender gap has proved to be a frustratingly slow process. A toolbox that has been available for some time could speed up the process, provided female practitioners and the companies they work for can deploy it more effectively.

The hurdles that impede women’s careers in supply chain and the case for removing these barriers were discussed at the Women in Supply Chain Summit: Achieving Balance in SCM, March 26–27, 2019, organized by the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics, and hosted by lifestyle footwear and apparel brand Converse in Boston, MA.

Gender laggard

Summit speakers described how women are woefully underrepresented in the ranks of supply chain senior managers. For example, although women hold 52% of all professional jobs in the US, they only represent 37% of the supply chain workforce. The disparity worsens higher up the managerial hierarchy. A mere 14% of senior vice president, executive vice president and C-suite positions are occupied by females.

Such imbalances are evident across the board in companies, but supply chain “is a little bit behind other functions in our numbers,” said one speaker.

A number of reasons for the gender gap were posited. Supply chain’s relatively poor image as a tactical function does not help (a problem that bedevils the profession generally). Women often lack the confidence and forthrightness to propel their careers upward, and institutional bias towards promoting men compounds these issues. Job descriptions can contain language that deters female applicants, and job interviews dominated by men reinforce the biases that put female applicants at a disadvantage. Recruiters may or may not field female candidates for leadership positions.

Adding value

There are compelling arguments for addressing these problems. Research shows that gender diversity translates into improved operating margins and more innovative thinking. One speaker maintained that correcting the gender imbalance in the workplace could inject $12 trillion to $28 trillion into the global economy by 2025.

In addition, women bring valuable skills and aptitudes to the supply chain table. Empathy and emotional intelligence are two examples; attributes that are increasingly important at a time when functional teams are becoming more international and culturally diverse. Women bring flexibility and leadership agility to the job “because we are used to juggling lots of things and switching roles,” said a speaker at the summit. Role-switching also makes women resilient.

Still, these attributes are often overshadowed by the stereotyping that is ingrained in many organizations; prejudices that are at odds with reality. The collective experience and accomplishments of the veteran female supply chain leaders who gave talks at the summit rival those of any successful male executive.

Devices for reform

The challenge, then, is how to encourage more women to tread the senior leadership path. This is where well-established tools for fostering career-building can play a greater role. Here are some examples.

Mentoring. Mentorships provide career development opportunities. Mentors share their knowledge and expertise with mentees, and provide valuable guidance. Some companies operate formal mentoring programs that match mentors/mentees and include developmental milestones. In other organizations these relationships are less formal, and the onus is on the mentee to find a mentor. It’s important that there is good chemistry between the partners, and that their meetings are regular and meaningful. Also, mentorships do not guarantee promotions, are not designed to provide coaching, and don’t replace relationships with line managers. Some organizations create lists of people who are willing to be mentors. “The most successful mentors are not cheerleaders,” said a speaker, but “connector managers” who can connect mentees to the next rung on the career ladder.

Coaching. Unlike mentoring, coaching relationships focus on self-reflection and helping people to find their own answers to career-related issues. The experience can be therapeutic on both personal and professional levels.

Sponsorships. As a speaker at the summit pointed out, sponsorships are often the “most important but mysterious” tools in the career-building toolbox. A sponsor will actively champion a person’s career growth, and as such, operate as a personal advocate. The mysterious part alludes to the task of getting chosen to be taken under an advocate’s wing. There are various ways to “make yourself sponsor material” advised a speaker at the summit. Excel at your job is top of the list, followed by strategies such as volunteering, blowing your own horn when possible and being crystal clear about what you want to achieve. “Sometimes a sponsorship can push you out of your comfort zone and make you succeed,” said an attendee.

Networking. Probably the most familiar mechanism for career advancement. The growth of social media has taken networking to a different level. A summit attendee emphasized the importance of joining external as well as internal groups. Some companies have formal groups to promote the latter. Another participant described advocacy networks, that comprise groups of women coworkers who help each by, for example, supporting group members in meetings to make sure they are heard.

Gaining ground

These tools can help women navigate male-dominated career paths to the top of the supply chain profession. But first, they need to understand the different types of support provided by these tools and to integrate them into a cohesive career-building strategy.

The changes that are now roiling the supply chain profession are bringing new challenges — and opportunities for women. Automation and digitalization are reshuffling the skills deck. In addition, “our business acumen has got to be raised to a new level because supply chain now has a seat at the C-Suite table,” said a summit speaker.

There was optimism that women will rise to the challenge. Also, if the gender gap continues to narrow the momentum for change will increase. As a speaker at the summit pointed out, “the odds of hiring a woman are much higher if two other women are in the room.”

Women in Supply Chain Summit: Achieving Balance in SCM, March 26–27, 2019, organized by the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics, and hosted by lifestyle footwear and apparel brand Converse in Boston, MA.

MIT CTL is planning further events and research projects that focus on promoting career paths in supply chain management for women. For more information contact Katie Date, Corporate Outreach and SCALE manager, MIT CTL, at Datecl@mit.edu.