Two decades ago, it was a rare thing to find women working within supply chain operations.
From warehousing to operations to consultancy, the supply chain sector was firmly male dominated. There was a perception that tough manual labour in warehouses underpinned by a slightly laddish work culture was all the industry had to offer, and many highly skilled and qualified women were left hesitant or unwilling to consider it as a potential career path.
Thankfully, a lot has changed since then.
According to Gartner, women now occupy 41% of the supply chain workforce, up from 35% in 2016. That includes 33% of first line manager and supervisory roles. It marks a real step change, both in the importance that companies are placing on gender diversity, and the willingness of women to consider the opportunities within the supply chain.
So, what’s changed? And what more is there to be done?
Well, this progress is in no small part down to the way automation has democratised existing roles and created new ones, believes Leigh Laramy, REPL’s head of global supply chain practice. “Whereas it was once heavy manual labour, and quite a dangerous environment in some ways, now there’s both greater levels of health and safety, but also the use of robotics and automation that make many functions a lot less physically stressful. That’s opened up opportunities for people to come into that space that may not have considered this career path before and be just as effective.”
Just as significantly, it’s created career paths that bypass the traditional warehouse environment entirely and lead straight into strategic or technical roles. In fact, the supply chain analytics market is set to grow 15.8% by 2024 thanks to the widespread integration of IoT, smart warehousing and AI tools, as well as emerging fields, such as 3D printing. This has been supported by the growth of supply chain qualifications within higher education, altering perceptions of what opportunities the supply chain really holds. In the UK alone, there are now 35 supply chain management degrees on offer at 15 universities. All of which has helped welcome a far more diverse range of candidates into the sector, from different backgrounds and skillsets. Including a far higher proportion of women.
There is still plenty of work to be done though. The same Gartner report found that women still only occupy 15% of the most senior executive roles across the supply chain, for instance, despite their growing representation in more junior positions.
To some extent that will improve over time, as the changes in the talent pipeline feed up into recruitment at these highest levels. But it’s also critical that companies don’t grow complacent and continue to sell the huge diversity of opportunity within the supply chain sector, believes Laramy. “It’s about how do you go into a warehouse environment and convince these young women, who’ve perhaps taken roles as a stop gap, that what they’re doing now could be really relevant to a great career.
“Warehouses are massive operations, and the fact that they understand it, and know how it works from end-to-end is such a fantastic skill. I still don’t think we’re educating people enough on the fact that these roles could lead to something bigger and better.”
Providing support and encouragement to women within the supply chain practice at REPL has been one of the key drivers behind a significant uptick in its own gender diversity. As a result, REPL has now been recognised by Great Place to Work as one of the UK’s top workplaces for women.
“It’s about building the right culture and the right environment around you,” she adds. This extends all the way from recruiting candidates that share the same values on diversity, to ensuring female role models are visible within a business, and also encouraging female members of staff to take part in networking or even mentoring opportunities. For all employees too, there needs to be greater flexibility built into ways of working to ensure that parents, or people with other responsibilities, can balance these alongside their work.
Ultimately, doing so ensures the supply chain sector doesn’t lose out on talent. Studies have revealed that companies with a more inclusive workforce make better business decisions 87% of the time (and twice as fast), are 70% more likely to capture new markets, and have a 2.3 times higher cash flow than companies that fail to put gender and diversity at the top of their agenda.
The supply chain sector has come a long way in the last 20 years. But there’s still plenty more to be done if it’s to reap all the benefits of a diverse, optimised workforce.