Number of women in supply chain is growing, but painfully slowly

women in supply chain

The importance of International Women’s Day became especially clear during a recent Webinar Wednesday, which revealed that the share of women in supply chain is growing, but only very slowly. Within today’s male-dominated workplaces, too many prejudices still exist about women at the top. As a result, despite all the good intentions, the efforts to increase diversity are having little effect – even though research proves that diversity pays off.

By Marcel te Lindert

Patrick Gunther can still recall the consternation when he appointed a pregnant woman as manager at Bausch + Lomb, a manufacturer and distributor of contact lenses. Who in their right mind would hire a pregnant woman? Even today, years later, the company’s senior director of EMEA logistics couldn’t understand why that was a problem. “This woman was simply the best candidate. She’d just start a little later. So what?”

The example illustrates some of the reactions women get when they apply for supply chain executive positions, according to Dominique Jansen of SCM Executives. She could give plenty of examples, from ‘Her kids are kind of young,’ and ‘No makeup and no high heels – she doesn’t provide the feminine touch,’ to ‘She’s too friendly for a mainly male team,’ and ‘She asks too many questions; she’s not decisive enough,’ plus many more. “Almost all companies that hire us to search for candidates explicitly ask us to shortlist women. But in many cases, good intentions are as good as it gets. After interviews with female candidates, we hear some remarkable cases of stereotyping.”

Women account for 41%

It is because of these types of prejudices that women are advancing so slowly in supply chain. “Painfully slowly,” stressed Melanie Salter, Director of Supply Chain Research at the women’s network Boom!. She referred to a joint study by Awesome and Gartner, which shows that the proportion of women is growing by only 1 or 2% a year, from 35% in 2016 to 41% in 2021. And to Salter’s dismay, the percentage actually dropped slightly again last year to 39%. “I blame this on the pandemic, which prompted many women to stop working to take care of their children. Fortunately, we expect renewed growth this year.”

The picture that emerges when the figures are broken down by position is even more concerning: the higher the position, the lower the proportion of women. At managerial and supervisory level, 34% are female. But women account for just 28% of directors and only 19% of chief supply chain officers. In other words, it is much more difficult for women than for men to advance to top supply chain positions. “These percentages are also growing year on year, but not nearly fast enough,” Salter stated.

Better business results

There are of course various measures to promote diversity in business. The gender pay gap is narrowing. There are quotas for the number of women on the boards of large companies. The opportunities for flexible working hours and extra parental leave are increasing. “But that’s just the tip of the iceberg that’s visible above the water,” Salter argued. “What we don’t see is everything below the surface. Think of all the prejudices, the lack of inspiring role models, or the lack of the right culture and leadership. If the company leaders don’t support it, diversity won’t get off the ground.”

And yet diversity, equality and inclusion are proven to drive better business results. Research shows that paying attention to diversity leads to more engaged and better performing employees, more innovation and better decision-making processes. In addition, a focus on diversity helps to retain talent. “And just as importantly, customers perceive the company and the brand more positively. Diversity is a win-win approach.”

Developing role models

Companies that want to increase the proportion of women in supply chain should start by taking a critical look at their recruitment and selection procedures. If they shortlist a maximum of one woman, the chances of that woman being selected are virtually zero. Jansen: “One contributing factor is that men are much quicker to conclude that they are right for the job. Women are more critical, more modest and ask a lot more questions. If they don’t meet all the criteria, they start to doubt whether they can do the job. Men tend to be much more self-confident.”

In 2019, Jansen was one of the founders of Diversity Works, which aims to create change. This organization has established several programmes, including to increase diversity among students and to develop role models who can serve as mentors or sponsors. “Men can be role models as well as women. Patrick Gunther is one of the role models we use,” Jansen explained.

Avoid making assumptions

When Gunther presented the statistics about the number of women at Bausch + Lomb, the company’s diversity appeared to be on track at first glance: 101 women out of 200 employees. “But if you dive deeper into the figures, you can see that there are certainly still some challenges on a number of levels. For example, because we don’t distinguish between men and women, I assumed we wouldn’t have a gender pay gap. But when I double-checked, I discovered that wasn’t entirely true. In certain areas we did see differences, so we corrected them.”

Gunther’s advice was not to take diversity for granted and to check the facts rather than making assumptions. “And lastly: take responsibility. Start with education – work with universities, hold guest lectures and make supply chain an attractive area for women. Set goals and don’t settle for less. For example, make sure diversity is always a topic whenever you start a recruitment and selection process or promote yourself as an employer. In fact, that holds true for all decisions you make as a manager.”