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Why we should stop talking about women in procurement

Home > Insights > Expert Opinion > Why we should stop talking about women in procurement
Expert Opinion
July 10, 2018

We interviewed four women in senior procurement positions to gain insight on the often discussed topic – women in procurement. The industry has made great advances in terms of equality and diversity however, as with most industries, there remains a disproportionate lack of women at the top. To get to the root of the problem perhaps we need to stop talking about women in procurement and tackle the issue at a higher level?

It is undeniable that the Procurement and Supply Chain professions have grown to be far more inclusive in recent years, and offer great development opportunities as shown by the impressive careers of our interviewees. However, the key remaining challenge is pushing for greater female representation at senior levels, and how this actually requires a much broader cultural shift, such as society’s approach to child-rearing in particular – a problem that is universal rather than unique to these professions.

Perhaps it is time we stop talking about women in Procurement and Supply Chain Management and start refocusing the conversation on what a 21st century professional needs to successfully balance work and broader commitments, regardless of gender.

In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook Tweet this quote

Background

Procurement and Supply Chain functions are continuing to evolve in response to the challenges and opportunities facing businesses. As Procurement 2020 – our survey of C-Suite executives – showed, operating models are evolving to push the functions from a more traditional, back-office role to becoming integrated and proactive. Key to any effective profession is attracting, developing and retaining the right talent. For Procurement and Supply Chain this means securing well-rounded people who can combine hard skills, such as commercial nous, with the softer skill-sets essential to acting as a critical friend and facilitator to the business.

In spite of the evolution, Procurement 2020 respondents across industries identified ‘People, Skills, and Capability Development’ as the top priority to driving additional value. Attracting a diverse team across seniority levels will be key to attaining the rounded skill-set required for success. One element of diversity is of course gender. Procurement Leader’s 2017 Salary Survey found that while women make up roughly 45% of buyers, only 12% were CPOs. Moreover, a study by SCM World in 2013 found that just 22 women held top Supply Chain executive positions in 320 Fortune 500 companies. Does this indicate that the functions are not evolving fast enough, and what implications does this have for executives looking to transform them and attract talent?

To measure the pulse of progress, Ayming interviewed senior female Procurement and Supply Chain professionals across a variety of industries. Our findings show that there is reason for celebration, albeit with an element of caution – women have made significant strides in the professions, eroding some of the traditional hurdles but progress still needs to be made, especially at top ranks. We explore not only how the workplace has changed, but also what companies can do to make real impacts and improve progress.

Changing workplaces

Procurement and Supply Chain, as with most of Operations, have traditionally been viewed as more male-dominated professions. It is plain – from our interviews as well as working with a variety of clients in advisory roles – that this picture has changed for the better. The consensus from the interviews is that the barriers impeding women from entering and advancing are eroding, and that these are rewarding professions offering a variety of development opportunities.

Gender balance was not always a given, however, particularly in the earlier stages of our interviewees’ careers. Conception Ribaud, Head of Procurement at MTR Crossrail, describes her earlier experience at a previous employer: “Career progression does not just happen in formal performance reviews, but is often discussed in informal settings. In one of my earlier roles this took place on the golf course, to which women were not extended an invite – at the time I felt that it was easier to move companies to progress my career.”

Where progress in gender balance is slower, it tends to reflect the tradition of ‘men-only’ jobs in certain industries. Katiuscia Terrazzani, Country Manager for Operations Consulting at Ayming Italy, notes that the “gender make-up of teams is more balanced in service sectors, whereas women more often find themselves a minority in industries such as manufacturing, engineering and construction.” As a result, women are more likely to be under-represented both in these technical roles and supporting functions such as Procurement and Supply Chain – though of course there are exceptions. Changing this requires a significant cultural shift in how women and men are encouraged from a young age to pursue degrees and careers.

Career progression does not just happen informal performance reviews, but is often discussed in informal settings.”
Conception Ribaud, Head of Procurement, MTR Crossrail Tweet this quote

Nonetheless, there is a real sense of overall progress with Conception and Emma Taylor, Procurement Director at Savills, both highlighting the diversity of their current teams. Emma’s experience spans a swathe of industry and commerce, from utilities and construction to management consultancy and property, and has since her first two posts worked in relatively diverse teams. Katiuscia applauds the vast improvement she has seen in Italy as well, and stresses the importance of leveraging diversity and the benefits it brings to organisations.

The broad consensus is that the final barrier lies more at senior levels. “Gender balance is roughly 50/50 at junior levels up to Category Manager,” says Conception. “I’m more worried about the levels up from Head of Procurement; this is where the challenge remains for the future.” The impact of having children, in particular, was highlighted. “Career continuity is often required to progress to more senior positions”, says a Logistics Manager in Pharmaceuticals. “The only thing that keeps women back is that you have to take time off to have children – it’s not that women are less capable at director level or above.”

Emma adds that there is perhaps a more fundamental challenge facing the profession that cuts across gender. Procurement representation at C-Suite level is generally poor: “The gender issue isn’t as prevalent as it once was. Getting Procurement up there at the main board table is probably a bigger fight for us.” If Procurement is unable to improve its brand to earn a seat at the table, this will continue to act as a development barrier for all professionals.

The gender issue isn’t as prevalent as it once was. Getting Procurement up there at the main board table is probably a bigger fight for us.
Emma Taylor, Procurement Director, Savills Tweet this quote

Equal pay and opportunity – not just a procurement challenge

The wage gap and under-representation of women at senior levels has been a hot topic during the last few years and is not unique to Procurement or Supply Chain. Recent 2018 ONS figures show that around 75% of firms in the UK still pay men more than women, with an average pay gap of around 9.7%. A study of 8 million workers in 33 different countries by Hays Group found that the wage gap all but disappears when comparing wages for similar roles. The culprit behind the gap is the under-representation of women in top-paying functions – and with just 24% of women in senior roles globally, according to Grant Thorton, this is cause for concern.

A 2018 report by the US National Bureau of Economic Research found that having children is the primary cause of the continuing gap. While having a child should be a joint decision and responsibility, it contributes to an average gap of 20% in the long-term for women. Child-rearing responsibilities still tend to fall more on women, and as a result they more often miss out on wage growth associated with more experience. The uptake of the UK shared parental leave, introduced in 2015, has been 2% – EMW suggested that this is in part due to financial constraints but also cultural stigmas.

And it’s not that fathers necessarily want to take less time in raising children – the lack of flexibility for women to balance their career and children goes hand-in-hand with stereotypes and expectations of men in the workplace. A study by Lancaster University Management School found that while “male workers may feel valued as employees, they often feel invisible at work in their paternal role.” Men also find it harder to ask for flexible working arrangements, according to a report by Bain & Co and Chief Executive Women. Men are twice as likely to having flexible working requests denied.

More interesting, perhaps, is that having children has opposite impacts on men. A report by think-tank Thirdway found that while women may experience a ‘motherhood’ wage penalty, men have been found to experience a ‘fatherhood’ wage bonus. This is further reflected by a Cornell study, which discovered that mothers are less likely to be hired than fathers due to a perception of being less committed. Based on identical fake resumes with references to being parents, women with children were 50% less likely to get a response, while men were slightly more likely to hear back.

How companies can improve

Our interviewees agreed that there are practical steps companies can take to improve the attraction, development, and retention of not just women but also talent in general – working towards eliminating bias and creating an inclusive working environment.

1. Create an inclusive workplace – focusing on needs rather than gender

With research and experience suggesting that the key barrier to closing the wage gap is linked in particular to the impact of having children, it is imperative that companies start offering more flexible working arrangements for both genders to improve female progression.

Most existing flexible working arrangements are gender specific, with leave policies tending to focus on women, with men being granted fewer occasions to work flexibly. Companies should start focusing on how they support any employee to be successful not just in their role at work, but also with balancing other commitments. This requires breaking through gender stereotypes and creating an environment where it is not only a ‘no-brainer’ for men to take parental leave, for example, but where they also have easy access to it. “Society has to start accepting a fairer share of childcare duties,” says Conception. While some countries, such as Sweden, have already established this by law, corporate leaders should not wait for a legal mandate to pave the way but start proactively looking at how their benefits system should change.

Emma emphasised that employers who introduce greater flexibility in working patterns and a better work-life balance will more easily attract both male and female recruits to team and leadership roles. The benefits are not just limited to employees with children; indeed, creating more flexible working environments will put companies more in line with the millennial working generation, who believe more flexibility will bring greater productivity and enjoyment to their careers.

2. Eliminate bias in recruitment and promotion

With the shocking results of the Cornell study in mind (see above), a simple but essential place to start is avoiding bias at the beginning of the recruitment process. “When recruiting, at any level, applicants’ CVs should be anonymised to ensure gender neutrality, while also combating other forms of unconscious bias”, says Conception.

Anonymised CVs should preferably be coupled with diversity and unconscious bias training to prevent bias occurring at a later stage, such as the interview itself or even during career development. A 2017 YouGov study found that male employees are more often described as “ambitious, confident, and likely to ask for a pay rise” even though female employees are more likely to be described as “reliable and conscientious.” Performance reviews and people managers should therefore take note not just of people who ‘shout the loudest’, but also look after and encourage those who work hard but self-promote less. Nor should they penalise those who do – a McKinsey 2017 report found that women who negotiate are more likely to be seen as ‘too aggressive’ or ‘intimidating’ than men.

Conception also highlights the importance of having a personal champion for your career. She credits a former female colleague for affirming and encouraging her future goal of leading a procurement team, which helped her grow her confidence and plan her next career steps. Indeed, the ‘Leadership in Procurement 2016’ survey found that “78% of procurement professionals attribute their success, in part, to another individual who has either inspired, sponsored or championed their career.” Targeted mentorship programmes at more junior levels should therefore help boost female leadership numbers.

Mentoring doesn’t just have to be a top-down activity, however. Reverse mentoring, popularised by ex-GE Chairman Jack Welsh, helps senior leaders more fully understand their staff’s developmental needs, career aspirations, and ideas for how the company could improve employee satisfaction. The best reverse mentoring programmes are those that seek to connect leaders and staff of different backgrounds to continuously enable leaders to learn and adapt the company to suit employee needs.

Conclusion

The Procurement and Supply Chain professions offer great career opportunities for women, with the key barriers remaining being societal issues rather than ones inherent to the professions themselves. The real challenge to closing the wage gap is reaching gender balance at more senior levels, where women are still underrepresented due to the disproportionate impact having children has on their careers. Companies need to start fostering inclusive work environments in line with the 21st century professional, focusing on what employees need to effectively balance work and life commitments in a gender agnostic way.

Profiles

EMMA TAYLOR | Procurement Manager, Operations, Savills

Since starting her career as a procurement professional in the 1990s with North West Water, Emma has worked in a wide range of sectors including manufacturing, retail and aerospace. She also has experience both in industry and as a consultant with KPMG giving her a unique perspective into field and how the procurement profession has evolved over the last 20 years. Currently, Emma leads the procurement and contractor management teams at Savills, the property services group.

CONCEPTION RIBAUD | Head of Procurement, MTR Crossrail

After completing her master’s degree in business in France, Conception chose to specialise in procurement. For the last 10 years, she has worked in different sectors including automotive, retail and entertainment, however what stands out is her expertise in the railway industry. Having previously worked at Greater Anglia and Hitachi Rail Europe, Conception is now Head of Procurement at MTR Crossrail, the operator awarded a concession by TfL to run the future London Elizabeth Line services. Conception was recently recognised for her expertise and contribution to the procurement profession with the 2017 CIPS Young Procurement and Supply Professional of the Year award.

KATIUSCIA TERRAZZANI | Country Manager, Ayming Italy

Katiuscia has always worked in the supply chain area. In her early career, she worked with multinationals, including Roberto Bosch and Coca-Cola. Katiuscia later moved into consultancy, applying her client-side insights while advising first on the use of technology in operations, mainly in procurement (BravoSolution as e-solution provider). In her current role with Ayming, Katiuscia started 10 years ago leading Operations Performance teams in Spain and China as well as Italy, where today she leads the whole subsidiary.

ANONYMOUS | Logistics Manager, Pharmaceuticals

Asking to remain anonymous this interviewee is currently a logistics manager at a global pharmaceuticals corporation, previous employers included companies specialising in high fashion, luxury products, and mobile phone manufacturing. Her diverse career has involved roles in quality control, coordinating imports and exports, logistics and related aspects of supply chain management.

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