Before taking over as chief executive of General Motors (GM), Mary Barra served as the automaker’s executive vice president of global product development, purchasing, and supply chain. The leap to the top job seems logical, but compared to her peers, Barra stands relatively alone. There just aren’t that many women at the top of the supply chain heap to begin with.
Women account for 37% of students enrolled in university supply chain courses, but only 5% of top-level supply chain positions at Fortune 500 companies are filled by women, according to SCM World, a research firm that studies corporate supply chains. In comparison, women hold 15% of all executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies.
Getting more women atop supply chain management is a major part of getting more women into the C-suite, says Beth Ford, executive vice president and chief supply chain and operations officer at Land O’Lakes. The role provides an ambitious executive with a window into every business unit, and is increasingly becoming important for innovation and strategy, she added.
“This field has transformed. It is a critical role in the C-suite of any business,” Ford says. “The representation of women in this area is not where it needs to be. At the same time, it could be viewed as tremendously exciting. The opportunities are there for women.”
The dearth of women atop the supply chain may be rooted in the particular demands of the job. Supply chain managers are responsible for planning, purchasing, production, transportation, storage, and distribution of particular products. This results in a work schedule that can require a lot of travel and time in the field, making it a challenging lifestyle choice for women who may be interested in building a family. Still, more and more women are studying the supply chain because of its importance to most businesses, Ford says.
“We will often times see candidates for jobs that are great, but they only want to work in a particular area or city,” she says. “I have a couple sites and regional offices and in order to get the right level of experience you have to be willing to travel.”
Some female executives believe quota policies could be an effective tool to get more women into supply chain roles. Though the tactic is controversial, some women in the field feel that specific targets will help get more women into the industry.
“If you’re going to be measured on something, you tend to deliver on it,” said Sandra Kinmont, head of supply chain academy at Unilever (ADR), in a recent SCM World webinar.
To Ford, the number of women working in supply chain jobs will grow if more women take control of their careers. The mother of three joined Land O’Lakes in 2012 after working in a variety of operating and senior leadership positions at companies like PepsiCo (PEP) and Mobil Oil, now Exxon Mobil (XOM). She chalks up a lot of success to her taking an active role in shaping her own career. Too often the conversation is about women being on the receiving end of their accomplishments, Ford says. Instead, she advocates for women to be aggressive and push for the right experiences in their careers.
“Be mindful and own your decisions,” Ford says. “Don’t think of yourself as a receiver of what happens in your life. Be an active steward of your career and make decisions accordingly.”
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