‘Or Accept the Consequences’: Advice for Women in Supply Chain from Dr. Lisa Ellram and Dr. Wendy Tate (Part 2)

Dr. Wendy Tate and Dr. Lisa Ellram

In Part 1 of this two-part interview, Dr. Lisa Ellram, distinguished professor of supply chain management at Miami University, and Dr. Wendy Tate, associate professor of supply chain management at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville, talked to me about the challenges that women working in supply chain face and how different professionals they’ve known have dealt with the challenges – from learning how to play golf to taking on extra responsibilities.

This second half of the interview covers the difficulty of changing traditional work cultures, the subtlety of modern-day workplace challenges, and advice that the two professors give their female students.

Sydney Lazarus: Lisa and Wendy, both of you mentioned in the first half of this interview that men are often unaware of elements of work culture that exclude women, such as lunch conversations about sports or, in extreme cases, after-work visits to strip clubs. There are so many industries where men made up the workforce, and now women are joining, but the culture is still a holdover from male-dominated times.

Wendy Tate: Talk about innate kind of behaviors, women are more naturally nurturing and helpful. They volunteer a lot more and end up with a lot of the jobs that no one else wants to do. That doesn't help you in your career if you are volunteering for everything that is a waste of time and doesn't get you anywhere. Women are more like, “If somebody asks me, I'll say yes.” And I am really bad about it, so I can vouch for myself. But they'll always ask me because they know I am the one who will most likely do it. There's others in my department too that are like that.

SL: Other women?

WT: Yes. Go figure!

SL: For the woman who’s in the middle of her career and who’s been the go-to person for these unwanted tasks, how can she make a drastic change if she’s settled into these patterns?

WT: You just start saying no.

Lisa Ellram: I would say it's really hard. I was still fairly early on [in my career] when I figured this out. I pointed out [that] they kept asking me to do more, so I [have to] give these things up to do these other things. But I can't do any more [service work]. And the initial reaction was extremely unfavorable. It was fascinating to me that one of my colleagues indicated that I was not being a team player, even though I was doing more service work than any one of them. It was clear that they had no appreciation for what I was doing, so I just had to take that stand. And then they found somebody else to go to, and I got my time back.

WT: I remember this woman [who] was just very nice and very Southern. She ended up being the party planner. She had to plan the parties and plan the cakes and plan the lunches and all that kind of stuff. She kept getting promoted at the organization, but she was still the party planner. And finally she looked around and said, "Look, I can't do this anymore." She finally delegated it to someone else.

SL: Have you noticed any generational differences in what challenges women face and how they respond to them?

LE: I don't think they are the same challenges because I would say that probably 20 or 30 years ago [the problems] were blatant.

WT: I would agree.

LE: And it's not blatant at all anymore. It is not. I would argue in very, very, very rare cases is it blatant. And I know of a couple of situations where a woman was sexually harassed at a workplace in a logistics setting and it was taken extremely seriously, extremely seriously.

WT: Now it's against the law to do that, [whereas] 20 or 30 years ago it wasn't.

LE: I don't think it's at all the same because now it's all subtle. And it didn't used to be subtle.

SL: Which, in a way, can be more insidious.

LE: Well you can't put a finger on it, you know? I can't figure out what's going on here. And why don't I know what's going on? Why is everything happening? And everybody else seems to know what's going on except for me? I want to have lunch with them but I've got nothing to say because they're talking about things I don't understand or I don't care about. They are just outside of my scope of interest outside of the workplace. So it is, in some ways, before I think it was really difficult to overcome, not to downplay it at all, but you sort of knew what you were up against.

SL: How can current-day female professionals deal with it?

LE: You really have to decide how much more do you have to give to your work than you currently do. Am I going to start going out with people after work so I know what's going on? Am I going to just say, “OK, it's still the work day but I am going to do my research on sports or NASCAR or whatever it is they talk about that I don't know anything about?”

WT: And it's again about priorities. Maybe women are going to prioritize differently than men will, and they are going to make their decisions accordingly. Granted my work is extremely important to me and it always has been, but my family is even more important. I did what I did to make sure that my family was happy and taken care of, and so if that meant not going and having beers, I wouldn't go have beers. And most likely I wouldn't know what's going on.

LE: And that is something that I do think makes it more difficult for women, especially women with families. We do have to make those choices. And it might not be simply that we don't want to hang out with people from work. It might be we don't have the time to hang out with people from work.

SL: That reminds me of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and how she’s said that she got a lot of support and help from her [late] husband that many women in the workforce just don’t have access to.

WT: I remember talking to women [who] are very, very senior in their organizations [and asking], “How did you get here, and what kind of sacrifices [did you make]?" And it was the kind of stuff you're talking about. "Well, my husband stayed home with the kids." And you're like, “Well, that would make a huge difference, don't you think? If your husband's at home?”

SL: Absolutely.

LE: I really want to be careful and I don't want to sound like these poor men are out there trying to get us or anything like that, because I really don't feel that is true at all. I genuinely feel a lot of times if you mention to them that you are being excluded they are quite bewildered about it.

Culture is not an easy thing to change. It's not like they are out there trying to say, "Oh let's talk about sports so Lisa won't come sit with us at lunch." In my personal case that could be true but in general that wouldn't be true. [There are] more women in the workplace, and yet nothing significant has changed in the culture, structure or management to really have people adapt the way that they do business. A lot of business is done very informally, and it's just hard for women to get to be part of those informal networks. How do you make sure that you’re having coffee and chatting with the right people?

WT: And it takes learning on both sides of the equation. We can tell our students and we can talk till we’re blue in the face about these are some of the things that you may need to do. You know it takes awareness from the men too because they are not aware they are doing those things. And they'll say, "Oh now I want to hire women. I love having women working around here and we are going out of our way to hire women." But there's no cultural change because there just can't be. It takes too long to change the culture, as Lisa said. Slowly but surely.

LE: So there is one thing that I have seen some companies do. I think Textron [and Sears] did this. Whenever they bring in new employees from all over the world, they have them meet together in training and they'll go to various places. They are trying to establish a peer group to get people to have these contacts all over the world and all over the company, building these informal networks very early in their career. Wendy, can you think of some companies that you know that do that?

WT: One of my daughters did an internship [at Boeing]. This is just a summer internship, but they’re all connected within these social network groups. I just remember my daughter was fascinated.

SL: What's the most common piece of advice you give your female students as they are going off into the workforce?

WT: The very first thing that comes to mind is from “Cinderella.” Be kind and have courage.

LE: I always tell them whatever you do make sure that you really enjoy what you're doing.

WT: They have to know their strengths, know their weaknesses and really be willing to say, "I am going to work on my weaknesses." Whatever that is. I am completely terrified of speaking in meetings. Well, that's not going to get you very far. Understand what you are not good at and get better at it.

LE: Or accept the consequences.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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