Why Are There So Few Women in Senior Procurement Positions?

We're delighted to feature a guest article from Jennifer Lawrence, who works in the pharmaceutical sector and Chris Lonsdale from the University of Birmingham.

Data is very limited, but surveys suggest that female senior representation within procurement (top two ranks) in the UK and beyond is extremely low – around 10% to 15%. Surveys also suggest that female senior representation in procurement is lower than in other corporate professions, marketing and HR, for example. To explore the causes of this in the UK context, we interviewed about 40 male and female procurement professionals, of varying rank, experience and sector. The view of most of this sample was that, to a significant extent, access was being unfairly denied to women.

The first issue identified by the sample was problematic work design, particularly affecting those women in procurement with children. According to our sample, many procurement functions were described as possessing both less than positive attitudes towards flexible working and poor return to work practices. Studies show there is a still a strong societal expectation that women will take the main responsibility for childcare, so these aspects of work design are still an issue for more women than men.

In respect of flexible working, one senior female interviewee commented: ‘There is an assumption that the women do the childcare and that if women work part-time, or flexible hours or term-time there's a stigma. In respect of return to work practices, one senior male interviewee that had for many years been responsible for such matters, admitted: ‘As procurement, we’ve just got to be better at making it work. If we say we are up for job-share, we can’t just leave it up to individuals to magically find a partner’.

In the procurement context, the issue of problematic work design was said to be a particular issue because of not unprecedented, but above-average amount of overseas travel. A female middle manager recounted her experience: ‘I had a team of about eight globally. UK, Germany, Singapore, India and the US - with a lot of travel and long hours I kind of knew I wouldnt be able to do that post-maternity leave.

Clearly, it would not be practical in many organisations for procurement managers to be excluded entirely from business travel, but a strong commitment to including work-family considerations within work design could significantly decrease the number of women lost to the senior ranks of the profession for this reason.

A second issue reported, affecting all women, not just those with children, was the existence of frequent negative (and empirically baseless) gender stereotypes and unconscious bias regarding female commercial skills and career commitment.

For example, a female middle manager commented: I do think that some men have a problem with women in commercial roles I worked for [name] and the new chief exec came in. He had a real problem with me and another woman there and it was because, and I knew, we were both in areas where we spent a lot of money and he didn't like it. A male middle manager illustrated a scenario that such stereotypes and bias can lead to: ‘If a man messes up [a negotiation], well, dont worry about it. Let's have a couple of beers and well talk about it later. If a woman messes up, theyll say she doesn't know her subject in the first place.

Such stereotypes and bias were said to often arise out of male-dominated cultures within procurement. The majority of the sample reported informal and exclusive decision-making by males, greater acceptance of male opinions, male meeting domination and males favouring males in recruitment. In some procurement functions it was suggested that this male-dominated culture went as far as constituting an aggressive ethos, deriving in part from prevailing ideas regarding effective negotiation. One female senior manager commented: ‘I think there is still a very large group of people who are the kind of macho chest-beating type’.

This ethos was something most women could cope with (although some have walked away to where work environments are deemed more amenable and opportunities greater), but was nevertheless reported to disadvantage them in two ways. First, some interviewees argued that ‘a culture where firefighting, table-thumping and win-lose deal-brokering continue to have higher status than robust planning, sustainable sourcing and collaboration’ works against women as they have an advantage in more ‘integrative’ approaches.

Second, it was said there can be double-standards in such cultures. Recalling a scenario that was believed to speak volumes, a senior male manager said: ‘[Tough] language by a male would lead people to saying that person's a go-getter, they want the best for the business, but, said by a woman, it was considered that she's being difficult.

So, there was a very strong view within the sample that women are being unfairly denied access to senior positions within procurement. It is important, however, to mention that this view was not universally accepted. One respondent, for example, argued that ‘procurement is one of those fields where you can get on if you have the right skills and qualities’. Another commented that some talented women simply didn’t want to make it to the top. Only a small minority within the sample, however, believed that women were not being unfairly denied access.

We hope, therefore, that our study will prompt discussion (and further research – our survey was limited) in the procurement profession about whether our sample provides an accurate picture and, if so, what might be done.

(Authors' note: This is a very high-level and incomplete summary of the findings – for more information contact c.m.lonsdale.ieb@bham.ac.uk. We also expect the paper to be published in full in the Journal of Purchasing and Supply Management).

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