Women in procurement – realism, confidence and an IT-heavy future?

We published our thoughts on a recent Supply Management article about women in procurement the other day. I wanted to come back to some of the factors that do perhaps hold women back somewhat, based on personal experience.

We recruited a lot of procurement professionals when I was CPO at NatWest, mainly 25-35 years old, and of our recruits, women outnumbered the men slightly. Many of them have since gone onto big jobs elsewhere, including CPO roles - another sign that the picture certainly isn’t all bleak, as we pointed out in our last piece.

But I did see one particular trait at interview. I used to find that the hopeless 26 year old bloke who spent the whole interview giving me monosyllabic responses suddenly perked up when I asked  “what do you want to be doing in ten years”?  He’d very confidently reply, “I want your job”.

Meanwhile, the 26 year old woman, clearly bright with some real achievements on her cv and personable manner would answer “Oh, I might have made it to senior category manager by then”.  (I did tell those we eventually recruited that ambition wasn’t a bad thing to admit to)!

So there did seem to be something about confidence or ambition there – although you might take it as being that women are simply more realistic. If you’re recruiting, I guess the message is don’t place too much store in pure ambition, bravado or confidence if it isn’t backed up by achievement and capability.

But similarly, women tended to be less assertive on negotiating starting salaries, bonuses and pay rises. One piece of advice for anyone, male or female, is to remember that the best time to get what you want is when you join an organisation or start a new role. Relying on the future when the boss says at interview “don’t worry, we’ll review your salary in a year”,  rarely in my experience ends up with what you might have got through some smart negotiation when they first offered the job.

There are also some very sensible tips in Rebecca Ellinor’s article in Supply Management that we recommended last time.

So, as we said in part 1, women are making progress. But there are two trends in procurement that pull in different direction in terms of whether that trend might continue. On the one hand, the greater focus on behavioural skills, managing internal stakeholder successfully, working in multi-functional teams, closer collaboration with key suppliers, might all play to what are traditionally seen as “softer” female strengths such as communication, empathy and so on (without getting into too much stereotyping)!

On the other hand, technology is playing a bigger and bigger role in procurement –eSourcing and market-informed sourcing, market modelling, supplier information platforms, P2P and e-invoicing etc.  Now historically, IT has been seen as a bit of a boys thing (e.g. 90% of Cambridge University Computer Sciences applicants / students are male).

So if more procurement roles start needing pretty strong IT skills as well, might that work against women? Or is this just a historical anomaly, which will quickly disappear? At the moment though, it must be said that most of the IT “super-users” I know, (that is, procurement people who have driven excellent IT use in their organisations), are male.

We’ll see how these two factors and others collide no doubt. And – as a commentator on our last piece said - let’s hope that in another ten years time this becomes a total non-issue, to the point that the Spend Matters editor of 2022 wouldn’t dream of writing an article about it!

Voices (6)

  1. bitter and twisted:

    Selling yourself is a very specific negotation which doesnt really reflect on overall purchasing skill (plus,legend has it that cleaners have dirty houses and doctors ignore their own advice)

    So, how many blokes talk themselves out of a job by demanding too much – or take the wrong job for a mere pay rise?

    Why is the ambition shown by the dork a good thing? Surely the right ambition is to be challenged and rewarded….promotion is the means for this, not the end.

  2. Ellen Leith:

    I don’t think you need to have a computer sciences degree in order to understand the benefits to be gained from implementing strategic IT solutions. Neither do you need to be male in order to drive them through. You just need to be able to make a thorough analysis – and have a sharp understanding of the whys, hows, whos and whens. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, you just need to be good.

    As to your morose 26 year old, who nevertheless saw himself as a fledgling CPO…..I’d rather have someone of quality who was realistic and pragmatic, rather than someone filled with empty ambition.

    Many senior finance positions do still seem to be dominated by men, and there are several reasons for this – over and above those you’ve mentioned, the majority of which will change over time.

  3. Ivor Beenfired:

    It’s about consistency of character. Buyers who can’t look after their own finances shouldn’t be let loose with shareholder money (or public money).

    In the same vein, politicians who don’t demonstrate they can be trusted in their personal lives shouldn’t be trusted in public life. Actually, the principle is universal. Anyone, who has credit card debt, shouldn’t be allowed to work in the finance department as they clearly have no grasp of the principle of compound interest.

    A new law indeed: Let’s call it the ‘Spendmatters consistency of character law’.

    Sorry, its Friday afternoon: I seem to have become carried away with the excitement.

  4. Ivor Beenfired:

    Erm, if women are not vigorous in looking after their own economic interests, does this not provide evidence that suggests they won’t appropriately manage the businesses commercial interests? Isn’t procurement – partly but importantly – about doing ‘smart negotiation’ at the appropriate time?

    I’m not suggesting it is true that women are less equipped to conduct successful negotiations than men – my experience is that gender is largely irrelevant. I have met good and bad across the sexes over the years.
    What I am suggesting is that the thrust of your article is a bit dopey and ill considered.

    Your charicature of contrasting a hopeless and uncommunicative bloke with a bright, personal female achiever is facile and won’t convince anyone of anything. Again, in my experience, you get an equal (ish) balance of good and bad traits across the sexes.

    If you are going to write about topics like this one (which I’m not convinced merit the metaphorical ‘ink’), at least be balanced and sensible.

    1. Peter Smith:

      thanks for those kind words Ivor! I write about all sorts of things as you probably know, so writing about this once every year or so hardly seems like over-exposure of the topic! And the metaphorical ink is very cheap, although the main point is whether readers like the blend, and perhaps the occasional slightly off the wall or controversial topic. My feeling is that the mix works OK.. but I could be wrong!
      Just one substantive point in defence – you say “Your charicature of contrasting a hopeless and uncommunicative bloke with a bright, personal female achiever is facile” – well, I wasn’t claiming every male applicant was like that (although there were more poor male candidates than female – that is a fact based on my experience). What I was trying to contrast was a greater ambition amongst the men, independent of whether their background / performance seemed to justify that ambition.
      Where I think you make a very good point that hadn’t really occurred to me, is about the link between not looking after personal interests having an implication for wider negotiation skills. Very interesting thought, and it would be good to get some more comment on that.. IF I can’t negotiate my own bonus, should I be left in charge of a multi-million corporate deal?

  5. Paul Wright:

    Anecdotal evidence at best, but my wife works in the Chemicals industry and believes that purchasing is becoming a niche for women in that industry.

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