Getting Ahead by Playing Golf: Dr. Wendy Tate and Dr. Lisa Ellram on Challenges Faced By Women in Supply Chain (Part 1)

Dr. Wendy Tate and Dr. Lisa Ellram

This past spring, I talked to Dr. Wendy Tate, associate professor of supply chain management at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville, to find out why female student enrollment in the university’s supply chain program had been dropping significantly. The conversation eventually led to the topic of both real and perceived weaknesses of female professionals in supply chain.

“I used to go counsel high school female students on how to get jobs,” Tate had said. “They were lacking one thing that was so critical, and that was confidence.”

Tate introduced me to Dr. Lisa Ellram, distinguished professor of supply chain management at Miami University. The two of them recently talked to me about the challenges that female professionals in supply chain face and how different women they know have tried to deal with these challenges to varying degrees of success.

Sydney Lazarus: Thank you Wendy and Lisa for joining me. Wendy, this was really your idea to have a discussion on the challenges that women working in supply chain face and the different ways they can try to overcome them. Let’s jump in. What are the biggest challenges?

Wendy Tate: [Women] have to be willing to just ask somebody out for coffee, just because they need to be seen and heard. If they don't have the confidence to state their opinions, they definitely need to be able to work on that. Or be able to make themselves heard in meetings because men tend to jump in the frame and say whatever comes to mind. Women will always think about it beforehand.

Lisa Ellram: I think one of the things that is really difficult for women in supply chain management, like in many fields, is that there is such a big informal network where things actually get done. And if most of the people in that network are men, it's really hard to become a part of that network.

I have no interest in professional sports, whatsoever. I could go on and on about just how ridiculous and boring I think it is. And I know I should know that stuff if I want to hang out with men at lunch because that's what they talk about. They don't adapt themselves because we are there.

WT: I heard this really interesting story. This woman who was very successful realized that a lot of decisions were made out on the golf course. She learned how to play golf so she could get invited to the golf outings [and] be part of the decisions.

LE: That's a difficult thing that women have to decide on. The networks aren't female-oriented networks. They are not talking about things that a group of females would naturally be talking about. You can't go in and change the conversation. You have to go in and join the conversation, or you are going to find that you go to a meeting and everybody has already talked about things. And maybe you haven't been a part of it because you didn't go out for beers on Friday night, or you're not sitting with them having lunch talking about sports during the week or whatever it is.

SL: Do you see this changing over time?

LE: It would be nice if it did. The issue is, things like that surprise women so much they get caught off guard by things. Even if you tell them a lot of times, they don't necessarily believe you. The really hard thing about this kind of discussion is that it’s not that the group that’s more in power is trying to exclude the other people, per se. It's just the culture.

Most of the stuff that goes on, I think, is very informal. Women would have to be in the majority to really change that culture. It's similar to the academic workplace in that regard. Don't you think so, Wendy?

WT: Yes, it's very similar. Even I'll walk into meetings [and think], “How did all this get decided and I wasn't even part of it?”

SL: How do your male colleagues respond? Are they apologetic or do they say, “I didn’t even realize that was happening?”

WT: Probably the latter.

LE: They might be a little surprised and say, “Oh, sorry." But nothing changes.

SL: How do female supply chain professionals respond? Can you think of any instances where the woman confronted her colleagues?

WT: I hear more of the “if you can't beat 'em, join 'em” stories. They learn to talk about sports and they learn to play golf and they learn to drink whiskey or whatever the case might be.

LE: I have even heard of women going to strip clubs. I guess what I have seen more of is that people either decide, “I am going to go along with this and I am just going to be part of it” or “I am just going to have to work harder and do extra things to overcome this.” I have seen very little evidence of people trying to get people to change.

SL: So that seems to be a huge challenge that women in supply chain face — essentially being outnumbered.

LE: My big thing is they don't want to be the first ones to talk, and they'll sit in a meeting and be the analyst in the meeting. They don't take center stage. And when somebody asks "Do you want to present?", they don't raise their hand first. It's the guys who raise their hands first. I guess it's a lack of self-confidence or something. Or maybe it would be an unwillingness to be the leader. You hear that from women a lot — “I don't want to be at center stage. I'd rather be sitting in the background.” And you're like, “Well, that's not going to get you a promotion.”

SL: Have you noticed, either in your own experiences or talking to your former students, that there is an age at which women suddenly realize that? Do women who are fresh out of college tend to be more timid?

LE: What I have found is that, and this is just my observation, people are usually comfortable speaking up right away or they are making excuses most of their life [for] why they won't. [It] doesn't have anything to do with age. It would be more like a critical incident.

I see people who are right out [of college] who are willing to speak out, and then people who have been out forever are just like, "Well, I have to defer to the vice president, so I just wait to see what he has to say." It's almost like a choice that you make. Am I going to put myself out there? Or am I going to wait for other people to speak up? I have been observing these people for decades and I basically find that they always have some excuse.

SL: Unless there’s a critical incident. Can you speak more to that?

LE: If they have [a situation] where they didn't speak out and it made a difference. Or they really could finally see that there was somebody out there who was speaking out who maybe wasn't as qualified as they were and getting a lot of credit and they weren't. And then those people have to make a hard choice. Am I going to step up to the table or am I going to continue to sit in the background and make excuses for not having my voice be heard?

WT: But then it's all in presentation too. If it’s a woman and they don’t like her opinion, they are going to call her names that are probably not appropriate for an interview. They get classified differently so you have to be really careful in how you present stuff.

SL: That’s another very interesting point that I didn’t even think of. So the classic advice is to put yourself out there and play golf, but does it ever backfire? Do you know of women who spoke out but instead were viewed as arrogant or overconfident? Or it cost them the promotion?

LE: A lot of it is the culture of the company. You have to understand what your own company culture is, and if it's really a place that's that bad. If women are treated that way, I just think you need to find another job. I'm sorry that probably sounds extreme. But it's like, give me a break, none of this long suffering stuff.

WT: Deep down inside, I still believe women are the meanest to each other, and so you have to be careful. It's not just the men you have to worry about, but it's the women as well because they will do things almost to the point of sabotaging. They will do things that are not conducive to you being successful. Because if they can't be, they don't want you to be either.

LE: I have worked at number of different universities and seen all these really somewhat strange behaviors. When I started in my first job, I was the only woman in that department, and I was considerably younger than anyone else. And it remained that way for a long time. The guys were just kind of uncomfortable. They just didn't really know what to do with me.

I was fairly opinionated early on. I tried not to be rude but that doesn't always work. I don't really think that they were plotting against me or trying to exclude me. They just didn't know what to do, so they just kind of ignored me a little bit.

I don't think they necessarily are going after us. It's just been their world and we have to either figure out how to fit into it or figure out how to change it or something. It's not a simple act of aggression or anything on their part. Ok, here we are, we got a new person. What do you do? Well, it's a woman. I don't know what you do because she probably doesn't want to go play poker with us, and it might be rude to ask her. Or somebody might think that there's something going on if we start going out for drinks, whereas I could easily invite my male colleagues to go for a drink. The whole kind of social milieu makes it a little bit complex.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Stay tuned for the second part of the interview, in which Dr. Tate and Dr. Ellram discuss the near impossibility of changing entrenched work cultures and the advice they give their female students.

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