Women in the supply chain: how they can drive the industry forward

March 07, 2022

Modern businesses are searching for ways to create nimbler supply chains that can adapt and remain resilient when unexpected pressures occur. But as consumer demand continues to grow and industries encounter challenges like ongoing worker shortages, lack of access to raw materials, inventory reductions and price inflation, supply chain leaders have struggled to keep up. 

To introduce agility and flexibility into today’s complex supply chain environments, organizations require diverse, collaborative professionals that can make critical decisions and implement new technologies that streamline operations — all the way from development to fulfillment. But who are these professionals? And where can supply chain leaders find them?

One underrepresented group that can help with this challenge is women in the supply chain.

New research indicates that women provide a key advantage in boosting supply chain collaboration and efficiency. What’s more, incorporating more diverse perspectives (including those from women) into complex workforces — especially within executive or leadership teams — can lead to above-average profits.

With this information in mind, businesses can work towards tackling today’s unique supply chain challenges by increasing their efforts to hire women, retain them and help them develop and advance their careers. Let’s take a deep dive into three core topics regarding women in the supply chain:

  • Where women are found in today’s supply chain workforce
  • New challenges supply chains are facing, and how women can provide support
  • How business leaders can help women supply chain professionals succeed

Where are women in today’s supply chain workforce?

Understanding where women are in today’s supply chain workforce is key to learning how to attract more women to the profession. According to the 2021 Women In Supply Chain Survey  conducted by Gartner®:

“Women comprise 41% of the supply chain workforce on average in our 2021 survey, a high point since this research started in 2016.” This report further states, “All told, 73% of responding supply chain organizations, the highest proportion ever, have a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) goal related to attracting, developing, retaining and advancing women”. 

The number of women that held leadership roles also increased in 2021. This Gartner report includes the following data on women in supply chain leadership roles by industry segment, showing what these roles were, the percentage of women in each, and year-over-year (YoY) comparison:

  • First-line managers and supervisors: 33% (2% increase YoY)
  • Senior managers: 29% (4% increase YoY)
  • Directors: 26% (3% increase YoY)
  • Vice presidents and senior directors: 23% (2% increase YoY)
  • CSCOs, SVPs, EVPs, and CPOs: 15% (2% decrease YoY)

The report further states that  “there are a few reasons we might credit for improved representation at almost all levels of the supply chain. For one, 2020 was a year when global civil unrest broke out in response to racial injustice and inequality. The public eye was fixed on what commitments and actions corporations would be willing to make to ensure equality and inclusion in their operations. This scrutiny from company stakeholders — including customers, employees and shareholders — put pressure on supply chain leaders to actively retain women that may have been inclined to leave the workforce during the pandemic.”

Along with macro trends, independent experts in the field are anecdotally noticing these improvements. “Businesses are investing significantly in training and culture initiatives that help foster diverse and inclusive workplaces. At Zebra, I’ve noticed I am working with more women and people of color than I ever have before in the supply chain industry,” says Deanna Self, Director of Operations, North and Latin America, Zebra Technologies.

But while these improvements are a step in the right direction, showing a clear commitment from supply chain leaders, there are still major areas of the supply chain that require significant refinement to retain and attract women.

Where supply chains can improve in hiring and retaining women

Where the need for improvement is clearer is at the highest levels of supply chain companies. According to Gartner, “it is important to know that despite improvements in representation when compared to 2020, there is one trend that has remained since this survey was launched in 2016: as the corporate ladder advances, the proportion of women leaders declines. Women only make up 23% of VP-level positions in the average supply chain organization, and apart from consumer sector supply chains, that number continues to decline as we look at specific industry segments.” 

In addition, Gartner cites that “similar to women overall, the proportion of women of color declines as the corporate ladder advances. Women of color make up 14% of the supply chain workforce overall, which is similar to the percentage of women of color that comprise the U.S. labor force (13%). However, they only make up 10% of manager/supervisor roles, 8% of senior managers, 7% of directors, a mere 5% of vice presidents, and 1% of CSCOs in supply chain.”

A final, major concern is a loss of women at mid-career levels across the industry. Per Gartner, “54% of survey respondents claim that retaining midcareer women is an increasing challenge, and 10% advise that it is a significant challenge. Only about a third of respondents said that it was not a problem in their organization. We find that lack of career opportunities is the top reason that midcareer women have left the organization across all supply chain industries, including supply chain solution providers.”

In the face of these trends, supply chain organizations without concrete goals on DEI in leadership roles should go back to the drawing board to retain and attract women. Supply chain leaders must focus on creating sustainable gender equality programs that reduce biases and help all women climb the corporate ladder.

In addition, introducing flexible workplace policies and equipping managers with the knowledge they need to recognize and address burnout can help businesses retain women who currently hold mid-level leadership positions. Making these adjustments is key to overcoming the new challenges the supply chain world is facing today.

New challenges the supply chain world is facing

The need for more women in supply chain comes in a time of new challenges for the industry. The pandemic has forced business leaders to find creative ways to make their supply chains more agile and nimble during times of unanticipated pressure and new government-mandated consumer safety regulations — and they’re turning to new technologies to do so.

In December 2021, Seagull Scientific asked six industry experts what the top labeling industry trends they were seeing, and predict where the industry is heading in 2022. The common themes we uncovered in their answers showcase the issues that women in supply chain will be needed to help address. Let’s dive into these themes a bit further:

Supply chains are being forced to become nimble

Businesses must revamp their supply chains to remain nimble and resilient when facing pressures from unpredictable roadblocks. This shift enables businesses to streamline production and scalability, enhance product traceability and data management, as well as reduce labor costs.

However, some supply chain companies may struggle to deploy the right technology to establish supply chain flexibility, either due to a lack of resources (which could include having a lack of talented professionals who know the ins and outs of new technologies) or a fear that transitioning legacy systems to newer systems would be costly and time-intensive. Bringing in new, diverse viewpoints can help drive progress in this area.

Survival is dependent on new supply chain technologies

New supply chain technologies —labeling technologies like 2D barcodes, RAIN RFID, and digital watermarking tools — are key to streamlining product lifecycle management in today’s supply chains. This makes hiring of supply chain professionals who understand the technologies a business needs and how each one functions a priority. 

But finding these professionals is proving to be a challenge for many leaders in the industry. According to a study conducted by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, today’s manufacturing workforces don’t own many of the skills needed to take on positions in smart factories, or to keep up with the rapid pace of digital transformation. 

In another Deloitte study, 75% of industrial organizations cited that reskilling their workforce was important for their success over the next year to keep up with these innovations, but only 10% said they were very ready to address this issue. Bringing on new, skilled, workers is key for supply chain companies to keep up on a rapidly-evolving marketplace, and underrepresented groups like women are a key starting point to recruit and develop that essential talent.

Governments continue to update consumer safety regulations

Governments around the world continue to refine and amend consumer safety regulations, affecting labeling and packaging requirements as products make their way through the supply chain.

For example:

  • The U.S. FDA required several food and beverage manufacturers to update their Nutrition Facts labels in 2020 and 2021 to remain compliant with regulatory standards — and changes like these will likely continue well into the future.

  • In January 2022, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) approved a new federal mandatory safety standard to ensure crib mattresses are safer for babies. This standard required businesses to provide improved marking, labeling and instructions to better communicate the risks of injuries to consumers.

Because consumer safety regulations are evolving, businesses must ensure they have a framework established to keep track of mandatory requirements and implement changes throughout the supply chain as needed. New creative and collaborative perspectives are needed to maintain this agile framework, and women can be great contributors in this regard.

How women can help supply chain companies succeed

Overcoming these new challenges can feel overwhelming for supply chain leaders. Fortunately, there are actionable steps they can take to begin to resolve them — and one of the first is understanding how women can step in and help make a difference. Here’s a breakdown of three key areas in which women can positively influence the supply chain:

  • Provide new and diverse perspectives
  • Offer beneficial behavioral propensities
  • Help replenish lost talent

New and diverse perspectives

Many supply chain companies once focused on cost efficiency over agility. Today, however, trends have shifted in the other direction. One way that supply chain companies can help with this paradigm shift is by bringing in skilled professionals with new and diverse perspectives, which includes women.

In McKinsey & Company’s 2019 report “Diversity wins: How Inclusion Matters,” researchers found that companies with greater gender diversity and representation had higher likelihoods of financial outperformance. For example, companies that had more than 30% women executives were more likely to outperform companies that had between 10% to 30%, as well as companies that had fewer women executives or none at all.

The diversity of suppliers that business leaders choose can also play an important role in operational success, especially when it comes to brand reputation. Check out these results from a Jaggaer-Tealbook survey that polled 90 companies around the world about supplier diversity in April 2021:

  • Two-thirds of North American businesses said the biggest benefit of increasing supplier diversity was “positive reputational impacts.”
  • More than 40% said “supplier innovation” increased and “supply base competition” was greater.

Diverse perspectives — especially those of women — make it easier for companies to challenge legacy-driven mindsets, adopt new automated technologies and propel digital transformation initiatives, and adapt to current regulatory mandates or industry-wide trends more quickly.

Beneficial behavioral propensities

In many cases, women maintain a key advantage over men when it comes to supply chain operations: their willingness to collaborate or work together to maximize joint gains. According to “Women are an Advantage in Supply Chain Collaboration and Efficiency,” a study published by the Production and Operations Management Society (POMS), women in supply chain environments are:

  • More collaborative than men when making supply chain decisions between two or more firms
  • Seen to be more collaborative by other people within the supply chain, as both men and women expect their female coworkers to be more collaborative
  • Most successful (provide the highest supply chain efficiency) when their team is all women, in comparison to mixed-gender teams or all-men teams. 

The study authors concluded that women in the supply chain are less driven by self-interest and opportunism, and more so driven by cooperation and coordination between their peers and the suppliers they interact with. Using these behavioral propensities, women are better able to see the bigger picture when it comes to maximizing joint gains during buyer-supplier interactions.

“Women bring a balanced perspective to the supply chain. They often think and lead with empathy, which has been proven to increase profitability and support bottom-line initiatives,” says Abigail Nawrocki, Network GM of Specialty Fulfillment, Deliverr. By introducing more women into the supply chain, teams can benefit from more diverse perspectives and better collaboration, cooperation, and coordination between all parties involved.

Replenishing lost talent

“The Great Resignation” has impacted almost every industry across the country — and the supply chain industry hasn’t been immune to its effects. With dedicated plans and goals from leadership teams in place, however, organizations can mitigate issues like lack of work-life balance, limited career paths and unfair compensation and benefits packages.

To replenish lost talent, supply chain leaders will need to first understand that there’s been a monumental shift in the way people view work and how it brings meaning to their lives. Data show that today’s employees want to feel valued and a sense of belonging, along with appropriate compensation. They also want opportunities to grow within an organization and have more flexible work schedules to create a better work-life balance.

Attracting top talent to the supply chain means businesses will need to start from scratch when it comes to their unique employee value propositions (EVPs). Holistic EVPs should: 

  • Showcase an organization's greater purpose
  • Facilitate a culture of belonging and growth for all genders
  • Align with those company’s goals that are outside of profitability

After solidifying a refreshed EVP, a business’s actions must support the goals and mission statements it claims. Using this EVP, company recruiters and human resources teams can begin to reach out to talent pools — especially often-overlooked female talent pools. Leaders also need to remember that hiring women shouldn’t be about fulfilling DEI requirements, but rather because women can make a real difference in the success of a supply chain.

Helping women succeed in the supply chain world

Attracting talented women to the supply chain industry is only part of the puzzle. After hiring women onto supply chain teams, organizations must work to retain them. Fortunately, several proven methods can help leaders encourage women to stay in the field and grow — and one of the first is working towards improving the perception of the supply chain.

Improving industry perception

While supply chains are doing a better job of hiring women professionals, organizations must continue to improve external perceptions — especially those of young women. Women leaders currently working in the supply chain need to be more visible, specifically when promoting supply chain leadership roles as a path for young women to pursue. Along with showcasing more women in leadership roles within the supply chain, organizations should emphasize why becoming a supply chain manager can become a fulfilling career.

According to the Global Supply Chain Institute’s white paper “Young Professional Women’s Perspectives on Supply Chain Equity,” students in The University of Tennessee (UT) Haslam College of Business’s Supply Chain Management program thought supply chain roles were attractive for three key reasons:

  1. They recently discovered the diversity of roles the supply chain industry could offer.
  2. The “people” aspect that comes with most supply chain roles intrigued them.
  3. They enjoyed the analytical, problem-solving nature of supply chain management more than they expected. 

Other reasons these students found supply chain management roles appealing included:

  • Process management opportunities
  • Team building opportunities
  • A chance to focus on sustainability
  • International opportunities
  • Interpersonal interactions
  • Cross-functional experiences 

“Supply chain is the perfect place for people that are natural problem solvers and have the ability to multitask. Supply chain is fast-paced and will always keep you on your feet. Never a dull moment!” says Katie Date, Leader, Women in Supply Chain Initiative, MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics. 

An emphasis on successful women currently working  in supply chain — as well as the many reasons why this career path can be rewarding — can be integral to changing perspectives and attracting new talent.

Providing the right benefits and work-life balance

Offering the right benefits and work-life balance are more important than ever to draw in and retain top talent. From competitive compensation rates and health insurance packages to flexible working arrangements and paid time off (PTO), today’s employees are more attracted to organizations that care about their well-being.

Along with offering more work-from-home options for applicable roles, there are several other non-traditional benefits that are persuading candidates to choose one company over another. Some of the most influential are geared towards working parents who need assistance with family care. This could range from offering equitable maternity leave for mothers to actual financial childcare assistance.

In McKinsey & Company’s 2021 report “Unequal America: Ten insights on the state of economic opportunity,” only 39% of respondents with household incomes below $50,000 and children at home stated they could afford childcare. On average, full-time child care for infants in the US is $1,300 a month, or $16,000 each year. Providing financial assistance for childcare can help attract talent. Benefits related to higher education — such as tuition reimbursement programs — also help attract and retain top talent in the supply chain. 

Mental health benefits continue to play a major role in where employees choose to work. In fact, the mental health benefits that supply chain organizations offer their employees are likely as important as physical health benefits when it comes to attract and retaining talent. And these benefits can play a major role in company profits: according to the World Health Organization, depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1 trillion each year in lost productivity. A recent WHO-led study also estimated that for every $1 contributed to treating mental health disorders in the workplace — such as virtual mental health services for employees — there is a return of $4 in boosted health and productivity.

Offering mentorship opportunities

When it comes to recruitment and retention strategies, offering mentorship opportunities for women within an organization can be one of the most influential factors. When supply chain teams bring on more junior-level women, they can benefit from the insights and wisdom that more long-term employees provide.

Not only does this help junior-level women establish social capital in a male-dominated field, but it helps them cultivate confidence and access the guidance and feedback they need to grow within an organization. It also enables women to carve out a path to earn more compensation as they advance in their careers.

Mentorship programs implemented in the supply chain industry must give strong and actionable information to mentees like women. Vague guidance and minimal collaboration can harm career development rather than encourage it.

Routing concrete career paths

Women who feel stuck in their jobs are more likely to search for a new one, which means helping them route concrete career paths is integral to retention. Career pathing is the process of a supervisor or talent development professional working with an employee to help them uncover potential career trajectories they could take within an organization.

Employees who can envision a clear path forward within their company are less likely to leave and more likely to come to work every day ready to work hard. This is because career pathing can increase employee engagement — and engaged team members produce better business outcomes than their unengaged coworkers. 

According to “Women in manufacturing,” a study conducted by The Manufacturing Institute, APICS and Deloitte that surveyed over 600 professional women in manufacturing, 41% of respondents stated that a lack of promotion opportunities would influence their decision on leaving. Within the same study, survey respondents stated that having opportunities for “challenging and interesting assignments” was their top motivator for continuing to work in the manufacturing industry. 

This is a clear indicator that, to retain women in the supply chain, organizations must work on developing formal career pathing strategies that keep women engaged and help them advance.

Implementing mid-career retention strategies

Mid-career women in the supply chain industry left their jobs at an alarming rate in 2020. This means today’s business leaders must focus on specific retention strategies to hold onto them. These women play especially important roles within an organization, as their industry expertise enables them to make critical decisions that affect operational success and become mentors for more junior women entering the field.

Supply chain leaders must implement tailored development strategies for mid-career women that help guide them into more senior levels of leadership. This could include providing mentorship programs or learning sessions that offer pointed advice and constructive feedback.

Unfortunately, gender bias in performance feedback has been an ongoing issue. According to a study conducted by Cornell University, women were more likely to be told “white lies” in performance reviews to make feedback sound more positive. A driving factor could be that some managers are afraid to trigger an emotional response in women when giving difficult feedback — but giving direct feedback is essential to helping women grow.

Where does supply chain go from here?

As supply chains continues to face significant challenges, leaders in the field must find ways to make their operations more agile and resilient to unexpected pressures. To do this, however, attracting and retaining top talent is a must. 

But rather than looking in the usual places for answers, it’s time for leaders to consider an often-overlooked talent pool: women in the supply chain. Not only can women provide new and diverse perspectives that challenge the status quo, but they can help to usher in digital transformation initiatives, boost collaboration between their peers and company suppliers, and increase profits.

Hiring more women is an important step in a series of changes that supply chains must make to adapt and thrive. However, this is only one key part of a greater initiative. Supply chain leaders also need to focus on ways to retain and develop the women they bring into the fold. These steps are an essential foundation for continued success as the industry evolves and moves forward.

Gartner, “2021 Women in Supply Chain Survey Shows Resilience, Improvement in Representation”, Dana Stiffler, Caroline Chumakov, May 27, 2021. GARTNER is a registered trademark and service mark of Gartner, Inc. and/or its affiliates in the U.S. and internationally and is used herein with permission. All rights reserved.

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