New Research on Women in Supply Chain Management: Is the Field Set to Evolve?

Early last week, General Motors announced that Mary Barra is succeeding Dan Akerson as chief executive in January, the first woman to lead a major auto maker. It was also early last week that the nonprofit Catalyst released research showing that women in top management remain anomalies among Fortune 500 companies. As an example, women held 16.9% of corporate board seats in 2013, indicating no significant progress for the eighth consecutive year. Figures are similar for female executive officers.

But what about the supply chain sector? Like the auto industry, supply chain is hardly a traditional field for women. According to SCM World, among the Fortune 500 companies with physical supply chains, women make up 10% of the senior leadership roles in supply chain operations, lagging behind general numbers for management. However, according to research conducted by SCM World over the summer at 56 universities worldwide, 37% of students enrolled in supply chain studies are female. Three quarters of the universities reported an increase in female enrollment in this area, and 71% expect further increases over the next five years.

Perhaps more interesting are current attitudes to women’s abilities in supply chain management. In a separate opinion poll of 150 global supply chain practitioners, SCM World found that 75% of women and 63% of men think that women’s natural skill sets differ from men’s, with 96% of women and 74% of men opining that these different skill sets give women an advantage in supply chain management.

Assuming that there’s truth in popular opinion, what does it mean for the future of supply chain to have more women entering the field, armed with a different but also distinctively advantageous set of skills? When I talked to Kevin O’Marah, the Chief Content Officer at SCM World, he mentioned the names of Christina De Luca (CPO at British Petroleum), Barbara Kux (Sustainability Officer at Siemens), and Eva Wimmers (SVP of Procurement at Deutsche Telekom) as three female senior executives he has spoken with who have described their management processes in the same way.

“It’s basically a give-and-take manner,” O’Marah said. “There’s far more listening to the other party. ‘Yes, you’re right about that, I hear you.’ I think women are better at sharing credit and listening to the players and trying to do a mutual decision.” O’Marah argued that this trait of solving problems collaboratively goes far in supply chain management, as the job requires bringing together diverse parties (engineers, purchasing people, suppliers) with diverse interests.

It makes one wonder whether supply chain management will evolve as a direct result of more women entering the field and taking leadership positions. Women are a visible group on Wall Street—but the trend there has been more one of conformity to the originally all-male work culture. However, O’Marah argues that the nature of supply chain management work makes it likely for the industry culture to evolve: “I do think it’s different in supply chain. Wall Street is traders and very win-lose. Done properly, supply chain is win-win, actually. I think women becoming more like men to succeed in the work world makes sense when the game is win-lose.” He goes on to explain that in the extreme “win-lose” case of grinding one’s suppliers to dust and putting them out of business is a stupid move and yet has happened—in the auto industry, for example.

Readers! What are your thoughts? Would you agree with Kevin O’Marah that the future of better supply chain management lies not in more optimization but rather in more collaboration? And does gender factor in here? Annoyed that all media headlines pertaining to Mary Barra and GM specify her gender? Opine away.

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Voices (3)

  1. b+t:

    Is multi-tasking a Good Thing? The XPO surely must be focusing their genius on the most important strategic issue at hand. Tasks should be delegated.

  2. Thomas Kase, Spend Matters:

    Sorry, multi-tasking is a myth for most – regardless of gender.

    When buyers start using the term “cost” to not mean “purchase price” that might be the day we’ll see change.

  3. Mike Hardman:

    Many feel that women are better at multi-tasking and seeing the big picture, which in theory would make them great at the supply chain. You need to be aware of all the moving parts but realize the grander vision you’re trying to build.

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