Why Is There a Dearth of Female Supply Chain Students? A Conversation with UT-Knoxville’s Wendy Tate

When I wrote to Dr. Wendy Tate, associate professor of supply chain management at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville, asking her to give a piece of advice for women working in supply chain for an International Women’s Day-themed article last month, she gave five. “I could probably go on for a very long time,” she wrote back. “This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart and I spend a lot of time with women students going into supply chain positions!”

Something strange has been happening to the highly regarded supply chain program at UT-Knoxville. Over the past few years, the program has seen a significant drop in the number of female students, even though overall enrollment is as high as ever. I talked to Dr. Tate recently to find out why, as well as learn about how young women can succeed in supply chain and her thoughts on the conventional wisdom regarding women’s supposedly innate professional qualities.

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Spend Matters: Thank you for taking the time to talk. Can you tell me a bit about your background? You’ve been teaching at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville for about 11 years now, correct?

Wendy Tate: Yes, I started in 2006. [Before UT-Knoxville, I worked at] Arizona State, where I was actually recruited by a female professor of manufacturing and operations management. She and I were two of the few female professors in supply chain. Coming from Arizona State, [the University of Tennessee] was a little bit more diversified.

SM: How did you become interested in the issue of women in supply chain?

WT: Before supply chain I was in operations management. I was at an almost all-male organization and I used to go counsel high school female students on how to get jobs. They were lacking one thing that was so critical, and that was confidence. About three or four years ago, about 40% of our enrolled students were female. And then, that decreased to about 20% in a really short period of time. I looked  around the classroom and there were no women in the classroom. And I thought, “Well, this is weird.”

SM: How many students are there overall in the supply chain program?

WT: I think we’re graduating 250 [students] a semester. We have 4,700 in our business college, and I can’t tell you how many change over to supply chain. There are many.

SM: I hear time and time again that women’s supposedly natural abilities actually lend really well to the supply chain field. Good listening skills inevitably get brought up. Collaboration is another one. Do you agree with this view?

WT: Absolutely, 100%. We just had our second annual Women in Business summit at UT. Scripps Network came in and presented on StrengthsFinder 2.0 [an update on the popular 2001 book titled "Now, Discover Your Strengths"]. All of the students that came into the session received this book, and they took this quiz that listed their top five strengths [out of 35]. I was astounded. Supply chain has more students than any other department in the business college, so a lot of female students [at this session] were supply chain students. I was just amazed at what are these strengths. And they were exactly what you mentioned, that we’re able to collaborate and we’re able to empathize.

But the things that were their weaknesses I thought were more fascinating than anything else. One of them was self-esteem and self-confidence. Women don’t speak up in meetings, women don’t get recognized. The question is, how do you develop those skills? And I don’t know the answer.

SM: I am quite ambivalent on that issue of women not being assertive enough in the workplace. Perhaps the problem lies in the unequal valuing of — for lack of a better term — conventionally male and female strengths.

WT: Have you read “Lean In” [by Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook]?

SM: I was going to bring that up!

WT: Instead of being supportive, women tend to cut down other women. It’s almost like they’re in competition with each other. That’s why I think these professional networks are so critically important.

I’ve heard a story about a woman making a presentation. She’s a senior person in the organization. She’s making a presentation about something very important, and she’s wearing a suit [with] a skirt. She finishes the presentation, turns around and walks out of the room. And one of the men in the room has drawn a picture of her legs. That’s what he’s doing the whole time.

SM: What industry was this? Was it supply chain?

WT: It was supply chain. And I heard another story, this time about a senior man and a female student making a presentation. And he said to her, “How can you ever trust a woman in a skirt?” So how do you break those barriers? I think it’s very challenging.

SM: Maybe it is as simple as a matter of unequal representation and not having enough women supply chain professionals in the office.

WT: If we can get momentum behind these women in supply chain, I think that’s the way to solve the problem. The students don’t realize that when they get out there in a male-dominated industry, even today [gender discrimination] happens.

SM: When you’re advising female students, or when you speak with former students or alumni, what questions do they ask you? What sort of advice do they generally seek?

WT: I try to [help them] work on analytical skills. It really is the women who say, “Oh I don’t like math.” You’ve got to stop saying that! That’s the number one thing. We’re in an analytical world, and you’ve got to learn to love numbers. The second thing is confidence. How do you teach them confidence? We do a lot of group work at Tennessee, and I’ve been in classrooms where there are five women in one group because they don’t want to work with anyone else.

SM: Interesting. So the women themselves prefer to work with fellow women.

WT: The women don’t want to work with any of the guys in the class, because they know they’re going to end up doing all the work! [Laughter] It’s the same [in the professional world]. They’re the ones who sit in the background and go through all the analysis, and then when it’s time to stand up in front of the CEO, who gets to do it? The boss, who is typically not a female.

SM: It sounds like a short-term solution. It’s not as though female students can simply avoid working with men once they enter the workforce, nor should anyone avoid working with any given group of people.

WT: [The Scripps Network] says focus on your strengths, but I don’t think that’s true. I really think we’ve got to work on what isn’t our strength. Because everyone will tell you, oh you’re very nurturing, you’re very compassionate, you’re very passionate, you’re great on teams, whatever. But maybe those are not the skills we need.

SM: Can you think of any students off the top of your head who was able to evaluate their weaknesses and make a dramatic change?

WT: I have two daughters who both went through the supply chain program [at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville]. My older daughter is extremely confident. There are a couple of women at her [organization], and those women go out of their way to ensure that she has a challenging time with her job. She works at a company where people will say things that are inappropriate.

My other daughter was the one I was a little worried about. She lacked self-confidence. The leadership skills that [the program] has taught her have probably been her most invaluable skills. She’ll say, “[Other group members] are not doing their jobs [on a project].” And I’ll say, “How are you going to handle it?” Many women would just say, “Well, I’ll just do it for them, because then it’ll get done and that’s my grade.” My younger daughter will say, “I told them this is their responsibility and they need to get it done.” So she takes the other tactic and says no, that’s not how we do things. We need to be leaders. And she was the one I was most worried about. [The program lets students] develop those leadership skills and communication skills. With that comes self-confidence.

SM: If we could go back to the decreasing female student enrollment at UT-Knoxville for a moment, do you have any ideas why that happened?

WT: It’s for a variety of reasons. I think we get a bad reputation sometimes. You say supply chain to people and they [think of] construction. “I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to drive a truck.” And you’re like, “Now wait a minute.” [Laughter] There’s a lot of misinformation on what supply chain is.

I’ve been working on this issue of women in supply chain my whole life. And [this drop in female students] really got us worried. And the people who hire our students got even more worried. We’re looking at all of our case material and we’re looking at our textbooks. And everyone who’s important has a male name. Now that’s stupid. So [for example] we started to change the names in use cases from Ted to Susan.

Also, we don’t technically get them into our major until they’re juniors. [What happens is] they get guided into those female-oriented roles — the HR role, the accounting role. It’s not like I want more students. Trust me, we have plenty of students. But our recruiters specifically want more women because they want diversity or they’re required to have more diversity in their workforce. In fact, women are even getting higher salaries. On average, leaving our school, the women make more than the men.

SM: Is that in the program’s marketing materials?

WT: [Laughter] I’ve had a lot of pre-med, hard sciences [female students] who come to supply chain. They like the analytics side, but they also like the relationship side, and they will say, “I’m a people person.” And I’ll say, “I get that, and we need you.”  

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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