Is this an accurate reflection of current barriers?

posted by Jennifer Lawrence
18 January 2019

Interviewing procurement professionals, Jennifer Lawrence found a fire-fighting and table-thumping culture that was seen as limiting female advancement 

To explore the causes of low female senior representation within procurement in the UK we interviewed 41 procurement professionals (23 women and 18 men), of varying rank, experience and sector. The resulting study is called Access Denied? Exploring the Causes of the Low Representation of Women in Senior Executive Positions within Procurement. There was some disagreement within the sample, but most believed that low female representation was to an extent caused by tangible barriers to female advancement within the profession. 

Design flaws

Work design was one barrier believed to be problematic. The sample in our study described negative attitudes towards flexible working and poor return to work practices. As studies show there is still a strong societal expectation that women will take the main responsibility for child care, these aspects of work design remain an issue for more women than men.

While the level of travel associated with procurement roles is not unprecedented within management, it is above-average and was said by some in the sample to magnify the barrier caused by problematic work design, as this quote describes: “I had a team of eight globally … with a lot of travel and long hours … I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that post-maternity leave.” 

While business travel will always be a feature of procurement roles, a stronger commitment towards work-family considerations could reduce the level of female talent lost to the profession.

A second barrier reported was a male-dominated culture within many procurement functions, consisting of informal and exclusive male decision-making, greater acceptance of male opinions (often within male-dominated meetings) and an aggressive ethos. Such a culture was said to have two effects. One, while such cultures were something most women could cope with, it nevertheless led to many women leaving the procurement profession – moving to work environments that are deemed more amenable and where opportunities are perceived to be greater. Again, talent lost. 

Two, it was said to lower female advancement amongst those who remain in the profession. This was partly as a culture “where fire-fighting, table-thumping and win-lose deal-brokering continue to have higher status than robust planning, sustainable sourcing and collaboration” was thought to work against women, many of whom were said to prefer and are more adept at a more ‘consensual’ approach to management. 

Such a culture was also thought to lower female advancement as it led to both frequent negative (and empirically baseless) gender stereotypes and unconscious bias regarding female commercial skills and career commitment. A female middle manager recalled a past experience: “A new chief exec … had a real problem with me and another woman there and it was because we were both in areas where we spent a lot of money and he didn’t like it.” 

Finally, such a culture was said to lower female advancement as it led to two types of double-standards. The first concerns attitudes to mistakes. One male interviewee commented: “If a man messes up [a negotiation], well, don’t worry about it. Let’s have a couple of beers and talk about it later. If a woman messes up, they’ll say she doesn’t know her subject in the first place”. The second concerns reactions to assertive behaviour. Assertive behaviour on the part of men was associated with being a “go-getter”. The same behaviour on the part of women was associated with being “pushy” and “difficult”.

Now discuss the findings

We accept that our sample was limited, but rather than claiming the last word on the subject, we are hoping that our study will prompt discussion in the profession about whether our study has provided an accurate picture and, if so, what should be done.

Jennifer Lawrence works in the pharmaceutical sector. She co-authored this piece and the research with Chris Lonsdale from the University of Birmingham. For more information: c.m.lonsdale.ieb@bham.ac.uk.

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