The year was 1990, and Diane Gibson, co-founder of startup Craters & Freighters, was working at her Denver headquarters when a sales representative from American Airlines walked in the office.
Gibson recalls that the male sales rep asked, "Where are the bosses?"—a reference to Gibson's two male co-founders. "I bit my lip, held my tongue, and told him 'They'll be back shortly,'" she says with a laugh.
Fast-forward two decades. Gibson's original partners are long gone, one leaving in 1994 in a dispute over the company's direction and the other bought out by Gibson in 1995 after he refused to agree to expand beyond Denver.
Today, Craters & Freighters, which manages the movements of specialized commodities described by Gibson as "too large, too outsized, and too weird," does $45 million a year in sales, has 60 franchised offices covering 85 percent of the United States, and is looking to expand internationally. Gibson has steered the company solo for 15 years.
If it were any other field, Gibson's story would not be unique. Across many industries, it is commonplace for women to hold leadership positions. But the upper echelon of the supply chain ranks—whether it is transportation, logistics, or warehousing and distribution—has remained the near-exclusive domain of men.
In some ways, little has changed. A survey of "women in transportation and warehousing" released earlier this year by Catalyst, a New York-based organization that promotes women's advancement in business, found no female CEOs at the companies polled. Only 11 percent of the firms had women board members and 12.6 percent had what Catalyst termed female "executive officers." Women represented about 24 percent of the total labor force at the firms Catalyst surveyed.
The status quo is sometimes felt beyond the numbers. "In my career, it's not been uncommon to walk in the room and hear someone say, 'Oh, someone from marketing is here,'" says Kristin Muhlner, CEO of RollStream Inc., a McLean, Va.-based supply chain software developer. Muhlner, whose background is in engineering and not physical distribution, said she sees little pushback today from men at the corporate level, though she acknowledges it may be a different story "down in the weeds" in warehouses and distribution centers.
But in other ways, change has come, or is coming. In January, Judy McReynolds became CEO of trucking giant Arkansas Best Corp., parent of ABF Freight System. No one could recall a woman before her being put in charge of such a large transportation company that was not her own. Tellingly, the announcement hardly created a ripple, and Arkansas Best did little to highlight its significance.
This fall, Barbara Windsor, president of New Market, Md.-based Hahn Transportation, becomes the first chairwoman of the American Trucking Associations in the group's 77-year history. In addition, women today run 11 state trucking associations, the most ever at one time.
In the public sector, Anne Ferro, former president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association, heads the Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Deborah Hersman serves as chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board—only the third woman to do so in that agency's 43-year history.
Long time coming
For women who've spent their careers in logistics, progress can't come too soon. Liz Lasater, founder and CEO of full-service provider Red Arrow Logistics, remembers during her 20-year career at big international transportation firms that "my male peers were more competitive with me than they were with other men."
Lasater, who held upper management roles at her employers, recalls being frequently "kept out of the loop" of need-to-know information filtering down from corporate headquarters. "At one company, this went on for two years," she says.
Lasater says the resistance from men came from within her own organizations, and not from vendors or customers. And it was more prevalent in the United States than abroad, she adds. "Throughout Asia and all the way down to India, it was always about business," she says.
The challenge for women can be compounded if the business is family-owned. Rachel Parker, who is in the management program at trucker Covenant Transportation, the company co-founded by her parents in 1986, says she sometimes has to invoke her lineage to build credibility and be taken seriously by customers and vendors.
Parker says her mother, Jacqueline, like so many so-called trucking wives, was actively involved in the business but in back-office functions traditionally reserved for women while the men were out driving rigs or drumming up sales. "My father makes a point of saying that 'My wife and I founded this company,'" she says.
The consensus is that Parker, 26, is being groomed to run Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Covenant when her father, David, eventually retires. She jokes, however, that David Parker, only 52, "will work until the very end."
Old habits die hard
For an industry facing a "brain drain" as the largely male old guard begins retiring, removing barriers to women's advancement could be considered more than a moral imperative. Fortunately for women seeking a foothold, there's been a proliferation of educational programs enabling professionals of both genders to obtain the specialized skills increasingly required in today's marketplace.
"Women have made tremendous strides, but those who have [done so] possess specific credentials, whether it be in engineering, healthcare, or other fields," says Lasater of Red Arrow. Lasater says that as she was coming up through the industry, "you didn't have advanced courses in supply chain management. You didn't have chief logistics officers. Today, women have the ability to get the credentials needed to advance and succeed."
But women's advocates say that change also needs to happen on a less-tangible front, namely in an awareness that women can be effective transport logistics leaders even though their leadership style may have been perceived as too "soft" for the often rough-and-tumble world of transportation and logistics.
"Many women in leadership roles are consensus-builders, and they encourage open, collegial relationships. That management style has traditionally not been viewed as representing 'leadership' in our business," says Ellen Voie, a former executive at Schneider National Inc. and founder of the Women In Trucking Association, a three-year old non-profit group based in Plover, Wis., that advocates for greater representation of women across all segments of trucking.
Voie admits that women "struggle with an image problem" stemming from the faulty perception that the industry feels they should be seen and not heard. "I don't think people realize that the trucking industry actually welcomes women," she says.
Voie chalks up the current resistance to women's advancement as less a form of deliberate discrimination than a reflection of industry's historic unwillingness to change. "Old habits die hard, so we need to call attention to things that companies are doing" to promote opportunities for women, she says.
Of course, there are some female logistics executives who believe that the old and entrenched ways are not necessarily a hindrance. Gibson of Craters & Freighters, for one, makes no apologies for using certain unique characteristics to her competitive advantage.
"Being a short, blonde, skinny woman has helped more than hurt," she says.