No silver bullet for gender diversity in supply chain

Supply chain is still lagging behind when it comes to gender diversity. Although women make up 39% of the total workforce in supply chain, they account for only 17% of top-level executives. Moreover, at the two levels below – among supply chain directors and supply chain managers – the supply of female employees is drying up. What is going wrong, and what can be done about it?

By Mirjam Hulsebos

In the week of International Women’s Day, the theme of Webinar Wednesday was ‘Gender diversity in supply chain’. Although more and more women are working in the supply chain domain, the percentages fall sharply as you look further up the hierarchy. And that trend is not unique to supply chain; the same holds true in other fields of business. It remains a persistent fact that women are overrepresented in education and healthcare, and underrepresented in business. The type of industry has an impact too: female supply chain directors are most likely to be working in retail or FMCG, and least likely in the high-tech industry.

Obstacles along the career path

In search of solutions, Webinar Wednesday featured Beth Morgan from boom!, a global online community for female supply chain professionals. To find out why women’s career paths in supply chain run less smoothly, and what can be done about it, boom! conducted a survey among 150 respondents. A quarter of them were male and the rest were female. This revealed four main obstacles for women

  • a lack of transparency about the recruitment criteria for a particular position
  • a lack of clarity about the overall career path in supply chain
  • a lack of insight into specific opportunities that are about to arise, such as internal vacancies or new project groups looking for members
  • unconscious bias in the application process

“What is striking is that you would expect women to respond with issues such as being less able to travel because of caring for children or elderly parents, but that obstacle is hardly ever mentioned in practice. The real barriers are to be found in less tangible aspects, such as the corporate culture,” commented Morgan during the webinar.

Different perceptions

This is also why having a formal company policy with clear goals rarely helps to get more women into top supply chain roles. “61% of companies have such a policy, which is a good start,” said Morgan. “But what you see is that companies think: ‘We have a policy so we’re doing enough.’ But they aren’t.”

For example, men and women have very different perceptions of the extent to which the company upholds its own policy. 75% of men indicate that they are very satisfied with what their company is doing to narrow the gap between men and women, and only 4% believe it is not enough, compared with 61% of women who are satisfied with the efforts and 16% who are not. “However, this still means that the majority of women are positive about their company’s attempts, so that’s good news,” added Morgan.

The differences in perception become a lot more pronounced when taking a closer look at how the policy translates into equal opportunities for men and women. For example, 71% of men feel that men and women are given equal opportunities, compared to 44% of women. Conversely, 49% of women say that men have more opportunities than women, compared to only 17% of men.

These differing stances extend to pay too. When asked ‘Do you think men and women are paid equally for the same work?’, 67% of men answered yes compared to 39% of women, while 25% of men said no compared to 41% of women.

Morgan: “This perception gap is very concerning, because the more positively you rate your own employer on these issues, the more likely you are to feel engaged in your work, to be more productive and to stay with the company. In other words, companies are chasing female employees away if they don’t address this bias.”

No silver bullet

So what can they do to reduce this disparity? The research by boom! shows that, unfortunately, there is no silver bullet. Because although companies can take some easy steps such as offering more flexibility in working hours to improve the work-life balance, the most important improvements are cultural ones: investing in different leadership, in cultural values and in countering unconscious behaviour that reduces opportunities for women.

“So companies are making tangible changes, but it’s really the intangible things that create the glass ceiling,” observed Morgan. One relatively simple way to offer female high potentials a smoother career path is to appoint a mentor to guide them – someone who can help to open doors that would otherwise remain closed. “That way, they too get to hear about positions that will soon be opening up.”

For their part, women should become better at getting themselves on the radar of decision-makers. This prompted a discussion during the webinar about the extent to which women should exhibit typically ‘masculine’ behaviour. Host Martijn Lofvers stated: “Research we did a few years ago shows that men are much better at selling themselves. They spend more time on their LinkedIn profile, visit more networking events, publish more blogs, meet with recruiters more often, participate in more talent programmes and are more likely to apply for a job for which they are underqualified. These are precisely the things that put you in the spotlight.” If women were to exhibit the same masculine behaviour, however, one could wonder how much that would really contribute to ‘diversity’ in supply chain teams.

Another thing women do less often than men is define a clear objective for themselves: where do they want to be in four years’ time? Morgan: “Women more commonly tend to opt for a ‘go with the flow’ approach. They see what comes their way and, above all, they want to enjoy their work, whereas men set themselves a clear goal and work towards it. That’s one of the topics that is receiving a lot of attention in the boom! community.”

Take action

Morgan concluded with a tip for all the webinar viewers: “Immediately send an email to inform your manager that you’ve attended this webinar and outline the top 3 takeaways you’ve learned from it. And then ask if you can discuss it together this week or next.”

Are you keen to work on improving your own position as a woman in the supply chain? Or are you a man who would be willing to mentor a female colleague? If so, check out the boom! website or download the various checklists from Supply Chain Media providing tips for women in supply chain and their direct managers.