Breaching Yet Another Male Bastion: Challenges and Opportunities for Women Leaders in SCM

In 2019, at most supply chain conferences, workshops or networking events, men dominate the scene. Women are the odd ones out. The same goes for executive offices and warehouses, logistics and sourcing departments of most organizations. It is not that there has been no progress made in the inclusion of women in this functional area over the past couple of decades. Forward movement has been recorded for sure, but a lot more needs to be done.

The challenge lies in a few specific places. This article focuses on two aspects. First, recruiting and retaining women in supply chain roles. Second, advancing women leaders in supply chain roles. As a supporting aspect, a third facet may be explored: changing the mindset of the dominant gender.

Recruiting and retaining women in supply chain roles require a series of initiatives to be undertaken. According to a 2018 study by global research firm Gartner and AWESOME (Achieving Women’s Excellence in Supply Chain Operations, Management, & Education) the number one initiative needing attention is top management support to change organization’s culture, leadership inclusivity and behavior. This has implications right across the board for the advancement of women in the field. Visibility of women leaders, telling their success stories, removing bias by ensuring that only males are not dominating the recruitment process, elimination of the name of candidates from their CVs for SCM positions in the initial rounds to eliminate deep-rooted gender bias, and making it possible for women starting families to have work flexibility, are all important initiatives that need to be taken to improve recruitment and retention. These steps would indeed bring more women into this traditionally male bastion.  

The advancement of women in supply chain is tougher as management often looks at the risk profile of women who are likely to “take a break” to raise a family or “completely opt-out” due to career-related stress and lack of organizational and network support. This can be addressed by having women mentors to guide new women in the field, creating clear cut career paths, building a pipeline of women leaders in supply chain and creating a community of women to discuss and deal with women-centric issues at the workplace in a male-dominated domain such as supply chain. It is a disconcerting fact that in most cultures, even in advanced economies with egalitarian philosophies and equal gender rights, women have to work harder and prove themselves more often to get the same recognition as men. Customer-facing functions such as marketing of services in banking and hospitality industries have had a better run at putting women in leadership roles. India’s banking industry has numerous women leading huge financial institutions. Human Resources function is a “natural” fit for women to make headway up the organizational hierarchy. But other areas such as operations in general and SCM, in particular, have suffered. 

The suitability of women for SCM roles is indisputable. Women are organizers by nature and multi-taskers with the ability to promote high levels of productivity in supply chains. From a personality perspective, being less ego-driven in general, compared to men, women are capable of coordinating much better between other departments on which SCM’s success depends. This is extremely important as it is the marketing function which is involved in demand creation and operations (SCM) which supports it with demand fulfillment. Companies like Mondelez International, Tata Motors and Johnson & Johnson have done exceptional inclusion initiatives for women in supply chain leadership roles. These roles are not merely affirmative actions. Women have had to prove their mettle at every step of the way. In strong familial cultures such as India, the role of family support is critical for the advancement of women in this functional area too as in others. To boost scientific orientation in the functional area, women need to initiate and participate in partnerships between industry and academics for research and training in the field. Leadership born of research and thought leadership would give women’s roles in SCM a fillip.  

At the intersection of marketing and supply chain domains bolstered by Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Analytics, organizations could develop an exceptional competitive advantage over their competitors. As big data takes over the business landscape, women executives in this domain need to upskill and be proficient in the machine languages of the near future. Expertise in R and Python, for instance, would help strengthen their place in the functional area. A larger number of young business management women students today are already investing in Operations and Analytics as specialization areas while others specialize in Marketing and Operations with open electives selected from the Analytics domain such as Machine Learning and Deep Learning as extra skill sets. Comfort in dealing with unprecedented levels of automation will be a preferred attribute of future supply chain leaders. Women have been for decades stereotyped as “not tech-savvy”. It is high time that that perception is killed.        

Women in the changing supply chain landscape need to clearly understand and navigate financial objectives and constraints of the firm, understand the customer in whom marketing has created demand, develop an SCM strategy that fulfills that demand within financial constraints, ensure that management appreciates the alignment of marketing and SCM strategies (which calls for the ability to market internally), and be able to continually monitor the actual performance and correct negative deviations from plan.

As with every erstwhile male fortress, it is only a matter of time before women take their rightful positions at the top. Current CEOs need to ensure that this process happens sooner than later by creating the right leadership impetus at all levels to be inclusive, merit-based and gender-neutral.