Closing the gender gap

Will Green is news editor of Supply Management
11 February 2014

Two pieces of research highlight a conflict at the heart of the procurement and supply chain profession. On the one hand, researchers at AT Kearney are predicting the “rise of the female buyer”, while on the other, a study by SCM World revealed that just 7 per cent of supply chain senior leadership roles are held by women.

The findings come as a government target for 25 per cent of FTSE 100 boards to be made up of women by 2015 looms.

Business secretary Vince Cable and Lord Davies have written to chairmen urging them to appoint one additional female director in the year ahead. So far, women account for 20.4 per cent of FTSE 100 boards, up from 12.5 per cent in 2011, and it is estimated that only another 60 women need to be appointed to meet the target.

However, judging by SCM World’s research, the supply chain function is some way behind in achieving similar representation.

Kevin O’Marah, chief content officer at SCM World, says: “We do know that women have a hard time getting to the top of all executive roles. Supply chain has traditionally been a man’s world. Twenty-five years ago, no-one called it supply chain.

It was known as trucks and warehouses, and it was a fairly rough and tumble environment.”

He has identified two factors that work against women getting into top supply chain roles. Firstly, he says, leaving the industry for any length of time – to have children, for instance – makes it very difficult to return. “Every day is a chance to have a disaster. It’s very high pressure. Stepping out for even a couple of months makes it very hard to get back in,” he says.

Secondly, O’Marah thinks men are more likely to put themselves forward for jobs they may not be fully qualified for. “Men are typically promoted on potential they exhibit, whereas women are promoted on results,” he says. “Men jump at opportunities, even if they don’t have the qualifications; women have a tendency to say: ‘I’m not ready for that’.”

Nicky Taberner, director of procurement and supply chain at Hays Recruitment, agrees that supply chain is in many respects a man’s world.

“The shortage of women in leadership positions is a reflection of the overall number of women joining the profession. Men in senior positions often will have started out on the shop floor, in physical roles traditionally seen as more suited to men,” she says.

“Firms should be encouraging more women, from school leavers onwards, into supply chain careers, and then giving them opportunities to progress. The focus should be on facilitating women’s access to executive managerial positions,
so the transition to board positions is a more natural progression.”

One firm apparently leading the way in this regard is Mars, where conversations are taking place around the possibility of 10-year career gaps to enable women to start families. Of the firm’s four divisional supply chain VPs, two are women.

Sandra MacQuillan, global VP for supply at Mars Petcare, says: “We are looking at how we can shift things to have more women in senior leadership roles.

“It’s whether we can meet the needs of women when they go off and have families, and whether we bring them back when they’re ready. As women hit their early 30s, do they want to pause and come back in their 40s? I wouldn’t say we’re there, but these are the conversations we’re having.”

The question then arises as to why it’s important to have women in those positions, and what it is they bring to the party.

MacQuillan, who studied engineering, says the world of business is changing, and that the needs and potential of people as individuals are becoming more important in relation to the bottom line.

“It’s not just the results, it’s the how. We have to deliver, but how you go about doing it is becoming much more important,” she says.

“The world is coming into a balance of EQ and IQ. You need that diversity of gender on a team to ensure you get the best decisions.

“There’s a natural difference in the way men and women work.”

New research by AT Kearney, in association with the CBI, would support this view. In The Rise of the Female Economy in B2B: A Source of Competitiveness for UK businesses, researchers predict the “rise of the female buyer”, but they found only slightly more than one in five firms altered the way they sell products and services when dealing with female buyers. This included altering the gender mix of teams in sales meetings and changing negotiating strategies.

Inna Baigozina-Goreli, partner at AT Kearney, said: “Our advice is that if as a business you begin to recognise the need for tailoring and the need to adapt to a female buyer in a B2B environment, you will be more successful. We’ll see the rise of the female buyer in what we call post-gender economy of the future.”

Then it’s a case of how we get to a post-gender economy. Are quotas like those of the government the answer?

O’Marah is clear on this. “If you don’t have quotas, you don’t have targets. If you don’t have targets, then all you have is platitudes,” he says.

MacQuillan also backs quotas, and Mars has one in that women should hold 40 per cent of senior roles. However, she says, it’s important that performance remains constant. “I really like the concept. What you have to be careful about is how you manage it,” she says.

But procurement consultant Beth Wallace does not agree.

“I don’t feel there are barriers to women working in procurement, but we certainly seem to be a small number. I dispute there being barriers to getting in; one problem is women don’t always know about procurement as a career,” she says.

“When you look at the skills you need – influencing, strategising, negotiating – that piece of it, women are probably more likely to have the right skill set.”

Wallace believes the way to tackle the imbalance is through “subconscious bias training”, in which people are encouraged to examine the basis for the decisions they make.

“It’s about recognising that we make decisions on a number of levels,” she says. “I am not a big positive discriminator. I understand why people do it, but I struggle with it because it should be about merit.”

Dual visions of the future

Researchers have identified two possible future scenarios: the parallel economy and the post-gender economy.

In the first, more women will study business and management, but most will gravitate towards traditional subjects and sectors with more flexible career paths.

In The Rise of the Female Economy in B2B: A Source of Competitiveness for UK Businesses, researchers at AT Kearney argue that under this scenario “corporate Britain will be at a disadvantage” and limited diversity will “hurt the quality of decision-making”, making it difficult to sell to firms where there are more women.

In a parallel economy, “forward-thinking firms” will team up with schools to encourage girls to study science and engineering, while successful women in these jobs will act as role models.

Career breaks, flexitime and online collaboration will be the norm, and women will “eventually achieve comparable representation across sectors, functions and seniority levels”.

“In a post-gender economy, corporate Britain will have embarked on a virtuous cycle, as it attracts the best talent. This will lead to more high-quality jobs and give British firms the edge they need,” the report says.

But the study, involving 200 executives in the private and public sectors, found while three out of five believed a different approach was needed to appeal to female buyers, only a fifth had adopted such an approach.

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