CIPS and SM brought CPOs together to discuss women in procurement ©Sam War
CIPS and SM brought CPOs together to discuss women in procurement ©Sam War

How can we get more women into procurement leadership?

More FTSE 100 CEOs are called John than are women, and procurement leadership isn’t doing much better. So, how can we improve the representation of women at the top?

“A step change is needed in pace.” That’s one conclusion of last year’s Hampton-Alexander Review report into female leaders. This is the second year of the government-commissioned report that seeks to increase the number of women in FTSE 350 executive positions. It follows the Lord Davies Women on Boards review, which saw the number of women on FTSE 100 boards rise from 12.5% in 2011 to above the 25% target five years later. Yet even now, with seven female FTSE 100 CEOs – including Kingfisher’s Veronique Laury (not pictured) – they are still outnumbered by men called John. The Hampton-Alexander Review is aiming for 33% women on FTSE 350 boards, and 33% on FTSE 100 leadership teams by 2020; the latter stands at 19.3%.

As evidenced by the very existence of the review, raising the number of women leaders is a government priority. And it should be a priority for CPOs as well. US research found women make up 37% of students taking supply chain courses at university, yet only 15% of CPOs in the Fortune 500 list are female. It is hard to find comparative figures for the UK, but a cursory glance around any senior procurement networking event would suggest we are not doing much better on gender diversity.

The latest Hays/CIPS Salary Survey also finds the gender pay gap is alive and well in the profession. At advanced professional level, women earn 25% less than their male peers. The UK’s gender pay gap is 9.1%.

It’s clear there is work to be done on helping women in procurement into leadership roles. CIPS and SM brought together a group of trailblazing female CPOs, rising female stars and male CPO allies to discuss the issue.

Embracing flexibility

A lack of female role models, male directors appointing in their own image and the challenges of balancing work and family are just some of the barriers to career progression for women, said Lucy Harding, who leads executive search firm Odgers Berndtson’s global procurement and supply chain practice.

Flexible working was a key theme, with the overriding view that organisations that empower staff to work more flexibly and judge them on output rather than input will reap the rewards and create a culture through which more women will rise.

“We need to create environments where you can say: I’m coming in after school sports day,” said Paul Bestford, CPO at Burberry. “You shouldn’t have to pretend you don’t have a family. As long as you’re getting the job done, it’s fine. But we have to set the example.” Bestford does so himself, by leaving early a few nights every week to collect his young children.

Alongside support for working parents, businesses need to embrace a broader view of flexible working, enabling people to flex their hours where appropriate for sports, seeing family or even getting their nails done. Karen Mansell, senior VP at Bayer CropScience, makes sure to carve out time to get to the gym several mornings a week. “Nothing interferes with that time, and it’s encouraged more people to flex their time and build other interests into their working week,” she said.

Such flexibility will attract the best talent, and CPOs need to think about the example they are setting. Julia Brown, CPO at Carnival, shared how inflexible cultures might be putting some off: “I asked a rising female star to apply for a senior position, and she said no. When she looked up to see how the other females in the leadership teams were managing their work/life balance, it didn’t appeal. We were not good role models.”

Giving exposure 

According to consultant and author Harvey Coleman’s PIE model, performance counts for 10% of career success, image for 30% and exposure for 60%. This proves, said Harding, the importance of building networks both internally and externally, something men tend to do more effectively than women. Of the people who contact her for regular coffee catch-ups, the ratio is 10:1 male to female, she added.

To build a pipeline of female talent, internal exposure to senior people in the business is critical. Women need mentors and sponsors to champion them to decision-makers. And getting recognition isn’t always automatic. Exposure to the senior team can make a huge difference, said Amanda Earnshaw, head of procurement at insurance group RSA: “The person that juggled everything and still did more is probably not going to get that exposure at the end-of-year review.”

Brown agreed: “We can underestimate as women that the ‘how’ is more important than the ‘what’. We hunker down, we deliver more and then are frustrated we don’t get those opportunities. We are not as overt as we should be.”

Managers should give high-potential women high profile projects and the chance to present to senior leaders to help them gain exposure internally. Maria Beattie, category manager at HSBC and a former CIPS Young Professional of the Year, said being “dropped in the deep end” on a graduate scheme helped build her confidence and get her on the organisational radar.

“It’s about recognising that you are being given a platform, but the support being there to catch you if there’s a failure,” said Mansell. “ [Leaders] have to encourage that confidence, get in early and coach. Women tend to wait for validation or someone else to tell us how good we are before ambition kicks in.”

The future is female

Anne Langley, CIPS fellow, recalled a career-defining moment with a manager “who wanted me to be a hard-nosed, table-thumping negotiator”. “It wasn’t me, and every time I tried to force myself into that box, it was a disaster,” she said. Then she got a new manager, who told her she didn’t need to be more aggressive. “He said: ‘You are who you are. Go and be a good procurement professional like that.’ If he hadn’t said that, I might have gone into a different profession.”

Langley’s earlier manager might not have much of a future in procurement today, as softer skills and emotional intelligence are becoming ever more important. Klaids Lafon de Ribeyrolles, director of procurement at Amazon, said while he acquired much of his technical competence from his male bosses, “when it comes to the subtler, soft skills such as empathy, influencing, team engagement and relationships management, it was my female leaders who coached me”.

The rise in importance of those skills should provide an opportunity for women to fill leadership roles in procurement and beyond. “You don’t have to look like a man and act like a man and speak like a man,” said CIPS director Cath Hill. “We have to bring that difference and be valued for it.”

Men must be engaged. “A key part of our role is to create awareness,” said Brown. “Lots of men aren’t thinking about [female experience at work]; they are just driving the business.”

“We’ve got to change the narrative,” agreed Mansell. “We need men changing the dialogue, not just women. Let’s give them the tools to go out and challenge those norms.”

Where next?

This discussion kicks off a refreshed focus on supporting diversity and inclusion from CIPS and SM. CIPS is committing to campaign for change and to ensure that diversity and inclusion remains front and centre in the review and development of all CIPS products and services. SM will continue to make a noise about diversity. And as you can’t be what you can’t see, we encourage diverse procurement professionals with something to say to get in touch.

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