Why are there Still Not Enough Women in Supply Chain Leadership Roles?

August 11, 2020

Time was, Supply Chain Management was seen as an outgrowth of a blue collar profession. Logistics Managers, Manufacturing Directors and other Supply Chain leaders often rose from the shop floor, from front-line warehousing and transportation positions. As a result, the field was overwhelmingly male: because mostly men occupied those front-line roles, and educational opportunities to get into the field were limited, the leadership reflected that demographic.

But as we chronicle on the Argentus blog, the field has changed. Supply Chain is no longer a back-office, transactional function. The rise of big data in various manufacturing and logistics industries, the development of sophisticated ERP systems, and end-to-end Supply Chain visibility has made it a crucial strategic function for companies looking to get an edge in highly-competitive industries like Consumer Goods, Food Production and Pharma. Other industries that don’t ship physical goods (for example Financial Services or Insurance) have adopted sophisticated Strategic Sourcing methodology for their Procurement.

What once used to be a field strictly about getting goods from point A to point B has become one where the top performers use sophisticated technology and supplier relationship management to provide untold cost savings, risk mitigation and innovation. As a result, educational opportunities have increased. More schools are offering Supply Chain Management as a degree than ever before.

For the first time, people aren’t just “falling into” the Supply Chain career and finding their passion afterward: more people than ever are choosing Supply Chain, recognizing it for the fast-paced, global, strategic, and interesting career that it is today.

As a result, the field has become younger, more educated, and – crucially for this discussion – more diverse. A survey of millennial Supply Chain employees conducted in 2017 found that 39% were women, which is lower than overall female representation in the work force, but up from the 24% rate reported in a similar 2014 survey.

Now, a new survey by Gartner – reported on by Supply Management Magazine, found that the representation of women in the Supply Chain workforce as of today is unchanged at 39%. What’s more? Only 17% of Chief Supply Chain Officers in North America were women.

Which brings us to the central question of this post:

More and more women are finding Supply Chain careers – so why are they still so under-represented in Supply Chain leadership?

We first wrote about this topic in 2014 – if you can believe it – and unfortunately, in the intervening years, not too much has changed. According to the survey, the percentage of female Chief Supply Chain officers grew 6% from last year’s survey, where they only made up 11% of CSCO’s. However, those gains were offset by the fact that fewer women occupied Vice President and Director-level positions within Supply Chain compared to last year – 21% in 2020, compared to 28% in 2019.

Interestingly, the Gartner survey drilled into different industries, and found that female representation at the VP level for consumer goods / retail companies was 25%, compared to only 13% for industrial companies. The Supply Management authors dig into the reasons for this discrepancy, arriving at two main factors:

  1. Industrial firms were more likely to require a STEM degree for their leadership roles, which women are statistically less likely to have.
  2. Consumer goods / retail companies are more likely to have formal diversity targets and goal setting when it comes to elevating people of diverse backgrounds into senior leadership.

So clearly, something cultural is going on between different industries.

The question of why there aren’t more women in Supply Chain leadership roles is a multifaceted one. On one level, it’s a microcosm of a larger trend: there aren’t enough women in leadership roles in most businesses, let alone Supply Chain in particular. According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, women in Canada hold only 25% of Vice-President positions across all industries, and a paltry 10% of CEO positions. The lack of female leadership in the corporate world isn’t just a Supply Chain problem.

But it is a Supply Chain problem – and one that presents differently depending on what type of Supply Chain a company has. So it’s worth asking: are there particular cultural aspects holding the industry back from elevating more women? And what more can be done to change this?

Some of the brightest minds in the industry have addressed this issue, and there have been some great initiatives to recognize the women leading the field’s evolution. In 2019, leading industry association Supply Chain Canada’ published its list of the Top 100 Influential Women in Canadian Supply Chain, aiming to recognize star performers and show their immense contribution to the field.

But the numbers show that women still lag behind in leadership roles, and more needs to be done. People of diverse experiences and backgrounds bring different skillsets and experiences, and the field will only be better off if more women can rise into leadership positions – and if they’re compensated equitably compared to their male peers.

In our opinion, some of the most strategic, impactful leaders in the industry are women. Take a look at our archives of Supply Chain executive interviews to see some of the leading lights in our network – (our recent interview with Procurement Guru Jill Button, or transformation executive Julia Formosa, are some great recent examples.) But the statistics show that the overall share of female leadership in the industry is stagnating – or rising slowly, in fits and starts.

Argentus has been proudly female-owned (and majority female-run) for our entire history. It should be clear where we stand on the issue: there’s been progress, but there’s much more to be done.

It’s a complex topic, so we hope to start a conversation. We’d love to hear your thoughts! In your eyes, are there any particular barriers within Supply Chain to elevating female leadership? Are scorecards and specific targeting effective measures to boost diversity in these leadership roles? What more could the industry be doing? Let us know in the comments!


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