How to build greater gender diversity in supply chains

posted by Alex Rumble
30 November 2022

A higher proportion of women than men were forced out of the workforce by the pandemic, and organisations must act to ensure women are attracted to - and stay in - the sector.

Globally, women’s employment dropped by 4.2% between 2019 and 2020, compared with 3% for men, a 2021 policy brief from the International Labour Organization found.

Female employment has held up well across the supply chain, however. According to the Gartner/AWESOME Women in Supply Chain Survey 2021, women made up 41% of the supply chain workforce in 2021, up from 37% in 2018.

Yet, despite this positive signal, they accounted for just 15% of executive roles across the supply chain workforce in 2021. It is a concerning gap. As Gartner notes in the study: “As the corporate ladder advances, the proportion of women leaders declines.” 

So, why is this occurring and what’s needed to address it? The problems start in education. According to the UNESCO report Cracking the code: Girls’ and women’s education in STEM, only 35% of STEM students in higher education are women.

As a direct result, many women are missing out on acquiring the knowledge and skills that will later help them secure more senior supply chain positions. A shortage of role models, together with a lack of transparency within recruitment, has also slowed the progression of women and deterred many from applying for leadership roles.

The increasing attrition of mid-career women is another major issue in the supply chain. Just over half (54%) of respondents to the Gartner survey claimed retaining mid career women is an increasing challenge, with 10% finding it a “significant challenge”. The reason for this? A lack of career opportunities is the top reason they are leaving, with almost 70% of respondents selecting it as one of the top three reasons.

Assessing the impacts

Taken together, these issues translate to a lack of women in leadership roles, which leads to a lack of diversity of thought in boardrooms. McKinsey & Company’s report, “Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters,” asserts that companies with greater gender diversity have higher likelihoods of positive financial performance. 

The diverse perspectives of women can also help to challenge legacy-focused mindsets, to embrace innovative automation technologies, and adapt to shifting regulatory mandates and industry trends faster. 

If supply chain organisations hope to improve their gender equality efforts and build a more diverse talent pool, they must develop mentoring, leadership development schemes and flexible work policies that address the needs of women at all levels. Supply chain gender diversity programmes should also look at how women can be encouraged to consider a career in the function while they are still in education.

How to build greater gender diversity 

One approach is conducting academic partnerships, roundtables, and other initiatives with universities – such as the Deloitte and Universities Enabling Together (DUET) program - to encourage women to pursue supply chain careers.

Advocating for women in supply chain leadership roles from the outset can help support the development of the leadership and technical skills they need to succeed. 

Deloitte also recommends “driving recruitment through the media by having a variety of voices at conferences and events who speak on the topic of supply chain.” In addition, there is much that manufacturing and supply chain businesses themselves should be taking responsibility for. 

The good news is that we are starting to see this happen. The proportion of supply chain organisations with stated diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives rose from 64% in 2020 to 73% in 2021 according to the Gartner survey. Among the survey respondents with stated goals, 68% said the supply chain organisation had a targeted initiative focused on women, a significant amount more than the 46% in 2020.

Despite these positive indications, more does need to be done and it needs to start with recruitment, which is always key in setting the tone for future employee engagement. To support this focus, businesses must ensure that communication is clear and active non-bias selection.

Candidates need to understand what career paths are possible, what training and development in supply chain management are available as well as the level of flexibility the business supports, including maternity policies, and its approach around hybrid working. The business also needs to prioritise offers to retrain women who have had career breaks and ensure the path back to work is accessible and supported. 

Women can themselves help to change the status quo and one way is through mentoring, which can be key in highlighting the challenges women are likely to face in supply chain roles and in helping them to raise their voices to initiate change. Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations found that mentoring programmes boosted minority representation at the management level by 9% to 24%.

Building in diversity

The current challenges facing the supply chain across the world are making the need for gender diversity ever more urgent. The representation of women within supply chain and manufacturing businesses, especially at the highest levels, remains low. Organisations are missing out on their talent and capabilities as well as the opportunity to support diversity of thought as a result.

These are complex challenges but there is cause for optimism. Change is being driven through initiatives in education designed to attract women into the industry, more flexible working practices and mentoring programmes. The prospects of achieving a more gender diverse supply chain look increasingly bright.

 Alex Rumble is senior vice president product marketing & corporate communication at IFS.

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