Why skills and networking will help more women reach the boardroom

27 May 2022

How can procurement do more to support women in the profession?

Supply Management spoke with several leaders about the experiences of women in procurement, barriers to career progression and how the profession can do more to support women on the path towards leadership.

In part four, we consider why women should invest in continuous development, and even pay for it themselves if need be, and the array of options available when considering retirement, with non-executive director Ministry of Justice, Shirley Cooper OBE.

What’s your opinion on opportunities for women in procurement?

I think we still do not have equality on any level. It is not an equal playing field and without 50% of the team on the team, so how could you possibly have the best team? They say it's going to take 100 years at least to get to parity, and that's far enough out to know that it may never happen – and that applies to procurement as much as in any profession.

We see many women joining procurement at younger ages and in their early careers, but there’s a sharp decline around 40 and a visible absence of women in leadership positions. Is it presumptuous to attribute this to child caring duties? 

Whether it's coming from research I've read over many years, my own experiences or a combination of all of it, at this age between 30 and 40 women may now be having their first or second child. They're starting to have parental issues and caring needs. So the race for the boardroom is tougher – and we play fairer.

And how you reached a certain point at 35 is one set of skills, but the challenge to get to the boardroom is a different game, you're on a different pitch and over a certain level you need a different set of techniques and skills. In most cases, women need to hone their skills more, to understand it's not about doing the best job in the best way and collaboratively working. At that top tier there are additional skills required.

Caring for dependents still falls to women more often than men, so how can we account for this in the workplace?

I’m a co-founder of a law firm called Tapestry, which we founded 10 years ago on the basis of creating global work outside London for lawyers. We built agile hours and working from home into our model, scaled the business and transitioned it over to our employees two years ago in an employee ownership trust (a John Lewis model).

75% of the employees and of the leadership are women and most of them came to us because they wanted to have a family and work. We built that into our model.

It's not about choices, it's about accessible working practices that are suitable for everyone including senior women. It works because you have a cohesive, collaborative workforce, people that want to work and are highly successful, they gain promotions and don't leave.

I've operated that system for all my career and I've always had the lowest attrition with  a high percentage of female in the teams. I build in flexibility that’s needed for men and women – men may break a leg playing football, you know, these challenges are equally as disruptive in the workplace but they’re not seen in the same way.

Where did this approach stem from?

I started my career at Roundtree Macintosh in Yorkshire, which was founded by Quakers, so from the age of 18 I was brought into a world of caring and collaborative working. I built that into my lifestyle of working, of making sure I have a collaborative teams so that a) they can support each other and b) work will support their lifestyles. And it’s transferable.

At Computacenter I had over 100 people in procurement, 250 mostly men in the supply chain, and I operated business flexible hours. There was structure to our flexibility, our employees were happy and our customers were happy.  I had 30% attrition when I started and within 12 months I reduced down to less than 10%.

Will hybrid working help more women access the boardroom?

There is much research being undertaken in this area, I see the papers by UNWomen and other organisations that suggests whilst hybrid working is more practical and facilitates the flexibility women need, when we are in a  post-pandemic world and office working returns more fully those choosing to work remotely will lose out.

When employers say you can work flexibly, the women who choose to work flexibly and from home will miss out because there will be all those in person conversations  and decisions happening in the physical meeting room, that those working from home will not be part of.

You mentioned different skills women need at senior levels. Do you think this is something many people realise?

One thing I would say is all women need a coach and a mentor. And we should always build our own "personal board", of people around you that will give you the knowledge and intelligence you need to keep your life and your career going, to nudge and coach.

When I was younger I was fortunate enough to work for companies that paid for me to do what I needed – MBA, coaching, Harvard, whatever. It was only halfway through my career I thought I should pay for my personal development. Some companies will invest in their staff but if you're not working for such a company, you should invest in yourself.

When it comes to later life wellbeing, such as menopause, what can organisations do to better support women?

It’s about transparency and inclusion, really. It is so good to see it on the business agenda to keep more women in the workplace and understand the dynamics. I work in the public sector, who work really hard to be inclusive and to educate. I think there's still a way to go with menopause because the difficulty is to be inclusive we have to include the subject of menopause and that needs more women around the board table to achieve that.

And what about later career options, for women approaching retirement?

The choices are endless as a woman. We have flexible, agile and creative skills. Many transferable skills, but the most important is communicating because unless people know what you're looking to achieve, how can they help? Some of us will never retire – just re-focus and use our skills differently. I left corporate life as such 10 years ago to start a portfolio career. I did not know where the journey would take me but was fortunate that interesting roles found me through people who know me and what I can deliver. 

I chose to work commercially part-time with Impellam Group and co-founding Tapestry in particular, to give me time to support the organisations and charities I am passionate about. And while chair and president of CIPS, I relaunched the Fellowship with a fabulous committee and co-founded the Blueprint Club for women in procurement.

An observation between men and women is how men stay connected, networking throughout their careers. Men stay connected throughout their careers in general whereas women tend to pop in when they need something, or when they have time. I would suggest women need to understand that it’s important to stay engaged with their wider community throughout their careers.

As we mature, we have so many transferable skills to bring to different organisations and professions. There is a portfolio career out there for all of us, whether paid or unpaid. And there are so many charities that would do anything to have our commercial skills, and also paid roles in various guises, certainly as public appointments. There are many paid and unpaid public appointments that would suit senior women from procurement.

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