Women in Supply Chain: Role Models for our Daughters

Too often, women take the role of facilitating collective victory, even at their own expense in terms of recognition and advancement

Kevin O'Marah
Kevin O'Marah

Rooted as it is in factories and trucks, supply chain has a reputation for being somewhat inhospitable to women. And yet, as we saw this week at our SCM World Live event in Miami, there are a growing number of women in high-impact leadership roles who are not only driving their companies forward, but also setting an example for young female engineers and business students hoping to join the exciting world of supply chain.

Our Executive Advisory Board includes Beth Ford, executive vice president and chief supply chain officer of Land O’ Lakes, as well as Maria Lindenberg, chief procurement officer of Chevron. We also featured lessons learned from the likes of Barbara Kux, head of supply chain management (SCM) at Siemens and ranked by Fortune magazine as the fourth most powerful businesswoman outside the U.S., and Christina De Luca, a vice president of procurement and supply chain at BP.

Too Few Role Models

Unfortunately, this litany of leadership is a bit misleading. Truth be told, despite our efforts to spotlight the appeal of careers in supply chain, fewer than 5 percent of all presentations, webinars and case studies in SCM World’s archive were delivered by women. And yet, more than 50 percent of all college graduates in the U.S., for example, are women. Where are they going?

The answer, based on what I gleaned over the years at the University of Wisconsin (where I sit on the advisory board of its business school’s Grainger Center for Supply Chain Management) is into the front end of the pipeline, but not all the way through to the C-suite. Why is this?

The answer may lie in Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s lightning rod message that women must “lean in” to their careers, rather than defer to others willing to shout louder or claim more. This advice rings true for many who prefer to win as a team or who believe two heads are better than one—the collaborative personalities among us. Too often, it seems, women take the role of facilitating collective victory even if it comes at their own expense in terms of recognition and advancement.

Collaboration, Not Domination

Ironically, this kind of behavior is exactly what pundits (me included) call for when we promote supply chain collaboration, whether internally among marketing, engineering and supply chain, or externally between trading partners. We even went so far as to prove that truly collaborative relationships result in 50 percent steeper learning curves. Maybe women have it right after all.

Supply chain leaders, regardless of gender, should get into the habit of rewarding people who not only lean in, but also see the bigger picture and can consistently find ways to win in the aggregate instead of just for themselves. The best-case scenario may be a combination of both leaning in and leaning back—knowing when to speak up, but also knowing when to listen. Supply chain is about balance, not dominance, and the best know how to find balance consistently.

I have two daughters who hear a lot more talk about supply chain than any normal person should be subjected to. Wouldn’t it be great if they dreamed of a career in supply chain?