Is there a glass ceiling for women in procurement?

I saw Shirley Cooper last week at a best practice meeting, and at the weekend I had an email from Jane Gibbs (Citigroup), promoting her stupidly impressive cycle ride to raise money for Right to Play (see here if you would like to contribute to this very worthy cause!)

Nothing remarkable in that, I hear you say. Indeed. But it brought to mind discussions I’ve seen and heard recently around the apparent “glass ceiling” for women in procurement, including a recent Supply Management article. Shirley herself is not surprisingly very interested in that topic, given her role with WE Connect – an organisation that promotes the cause of women-owned businesses.

But my reason for mentioning these two is of course that they are both ex-Presidents of the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply.  In fact, they are the two women who have held that post since Jeannie Bevan became the first female President in 2001/2. Now unless there is a major shock, next year’s President will be Paula Gildert of Novartis, making it four women in twelve years.

That’s not a bad percentage, but before Jeannie, there was nothing. Fifty years plus without a female leader for our profession.  And when I first entered procurement back in the 1980s, it would have been hard to find more than a handful of female CPOs.

Now that’s one of the things I found actually a little amusing about the Supply Management article on the topic - an excellent piece I should say, from the reliably readable Rebecca Ellinor. But she spoke to Meryl Bushell, former BT CPO;  Nikki Bell, head of Scottish Government procurement policy and strategy; Sarah Ellis, procurement director at BAA; Julie Digby, UK procurement head for Mars Chocolate; Robyn Wright, a principal at AT Kearney...  not a bad list!

Ellinor might also have contacted (off the top of my head, without consulting LinkedIn or Outlook), Christine de Luca, CPO at BP, Karen Van Vuuren, another CIPS Board member, Belinda Prince, recently CPO for Cancer Research UK, Caroline Booth, Lloyds TCB CPO till she emigrated last year to be CPO of a Canadian bank, Kath Harmeston at Royal Mail, Emm Pedler at Ford, Maggie Robinson, also Mars.... Not to mention Beverley Tew, who has recently been promoted from her CPO role at the BBC to even dizzier heights, and Silla Maizey at BA who has seen a similar move.  Look at US and global firms and we have Julia Brown at Kraft, Lisa Martin at Pfizer, and so the list goes on.

What about the UK public sector? Well, central government isn’t great actually, but we have Anne Pedder at the Foreign Office and Sally Collier at the Cabinet Office both at SCS2 level, other senior people like Sue Moffatt at NPIA, Melinda Johnson and Alyson Gerner at Education, and plenty more around the wider public sector.

A typical procurement department in 1983

Anyway, I wanted to make three points. Firstly, that matters have improved tremendously in the last twenty years, and we should celebrate and recognise that.  I could not have come up with a list like that 20 or perhaps even 10 years ago. That’s not to say there aren’t still issues – I was shocked by the comments in the Supply Management piece like this: “Anecdotes heard by SM include a woman whose CEO said he would never have a woman on the board”.

Any firm or male boss who thinks like that should be exposed and ridiculed quite frankly.

Secondly, as with women in all professions, there is an element of choice that does still contribute to fewer women getting to the top. Some just choose other options. I’ve seen that close to home, as my wife, without a doubt more managerially talented than me in many ways, chose to step off the treadmill at a certain point in her career to spend more time and energy on our young daughter.

Typical procurement department, 2012

Of course that could be the man doing this rather than the woman, and we have close friends where the husband did just that (not surprising given his wife earns a large 6-figure salary) – and perhaps that will become more of a norm. But we shouldn’t be surprised that the statistics for top jobs still haven’t reached equality when many talented women choose to opt out before they reach the top of the profession.

The final point is one I want to explore further another day, and it is the point that women – generalising hugely – are less good at self-promotion. Again, back to the SM article, and the CIPS Croner Reward survey:

The gap between men and women who are heads of function was 7 per cent in 2011. Figures for 2012, which will be released shortly, show that gap has widened to 13 per cent.”

That is shocking,  but probably reflects what I saw when I was a CPO managing large teams, although I’d stress I worked hard to eliminate unfair and illogical differences. But we’ll come back another day to how this manifests itself, and perhaps what women – and anyone who manages a team – can and should do about it.

Voices (9)

  1. Omar:

    Just curious, but do you see this acistuqiion leading to Ariba as a major player in what currently is an early-adopter practice, acistuqiion of dynamic payables discounts? I’ve seen a lot of movement in this sector recently, but I’ve equally noticed that the vendor networks, technology, and supply chain financing are not all quite at a synergistic point. Perhaps Ariba’s acistuqiion will lead dynamic discounting closer to fruition?

  2. Karen Bowman:

    Generally I have found that there are more women in senior business roles during the last five years (supplier and buyer) . But is there a point at which women either do not progress to top role CEO or not? That is a question of social research interest re ‘glass ceiling’ and childcare or conditioning?

    Is procurement better if male or female led? One for a PhD perhaps…
    Just think about Medicine to see gender trend – it has changed in 30 years!
    I used to be the only woman (almost) at senior meetings -but not any more.

    1. Ester:

      Ariba is a player in that space but this actsiuiqion will have no impact on that area of their business. This was a move to consolidate the sourcing players by taking down one of their strongest competitors. Since Ariba already has almost all of the functionality they are acquiring, this looks to be a EPS and client contract move.

  3. Ivor Beenfired:

    Mmm. What a very middle-class view of reality. Managerially talented wives. stepping off the treadmill and six figure salaries? Sounds like a twenty-first century re-run of ‘The Good Life’.

    Any CEO who says he would not have a woman on the board should not be merely ‘ridiculed’ – he should be fired for being an idiot and for breaking the law.

    I salute your aspiration to rid the world of unfair and illogical differences – but I’m sure that positive discrimination is not an appropriate way forward, as is currently the policy in a number of large businesses . It replaces illogical unfairness with, well, more illogical unfairness ‘validated’ by the latest fashionable ideas emerging from the HR department.

    There are many invidious and unfair aspects to life that require attention from people of goodwill – but I’m not sure that promoting more female CPO’s makes the list. I can’t imagine why anyone would want a CPO job anyway – in many organisations it involves long hours and bags of hassle with little real influence on corporate strategy or performance. Most women I have worked with are too sensible to care about inflated titles and the inflated salaries they attract.

    1. Peter Smith:

      Re “the Good Life ” – ahead of it’s time with its concern for the future of the planet. All that and Felicity Kendal in her prime… But you make some good points, I’m not a big fan of “positive discrimination” either – and personally I think we should just work very look hard to find the best suppliers without worrying too much about who owns them. Good point on the CPO role too – but that’s back to my point re some women deciding there are better things in life than long hours, endless meetings, hassle and Heathrow queues!

  4. Mike Buchanan:

    I spent the best part of 30 years in procurement, but quit to join the fight against the scourge of militant feminism. It exasperates me that you raise issues like the ‘glass ceiling’ and the ‘gender pay gap’. The former doesn’t exist, and the latter is attributable (in the case of procurement executives) to the fact that the average spend responsibility of male CPOs is higher than female CPOs. I refer the interested reader to Swayne O’Pie’s ‘Why Britain Hates Men: Exposing Feminism’, Steve Moxon’s ‘The Woman Racket’, and my own ‘The Glass Ceiling Delusion’. Have a nice day.

  5. Phoenix:

    It seems to be going in the right direction, happily. But the fact that you can list 20+ senior women in procurement is still a bit sad, in itself. One wouldn’t even think of listing 20+ senior men in procurement, or of writing about it.

    1. Peter Smith:

      I agree, but the fact is we couldn’t have named 20 a few years back! But yes, the day when it just isn’t an issue must be the ultimate aim…

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