This story first appeared in the Quarter 1/2020 edition of CSCMP’s Supply Chain Quarterly, a journal of thought leadership for the supply chain management profession and a sister publication to AGiLE Business Media’s DC Velocity.
IN 2014, WHEN MARY BARRA BECAME chief executive officer of General Motors, supply chain professionals were gratified that one of their own had reached the pinnacle of corporate leadership. Her background—which includes manufacturing, procurement, and supply chain management—was a factor in her choice as leader of the giant automaker. Her appointment was also notable for another reason: her gender.
Barra was not the first supply chain professional to lead a business, nor was she the first woman to head a Fortune 500 company. But as CEO of one of the world’s largest manufacturers, she set a highly visible example for other women in supply chain. Now more women are entering the “C-suite,” following in the footsteps of pioneers like Judy McReynolds, head of ArcBest Corp., and Ann Drake, chair of DSC Logistics and founder of AWESOME (Achieving Women’s Excellence in Supply Chain Operations, Management, and Education). They’re staking their claims as presidents, directors, and chief executive, operating, supply chain, procurement, information, and technology officers. In addition to the three executives we profile elsewhere in this article, examples include:
With women supply chain professionals increasingly making their way into the ranks of corporate leadership, it’s a good time to ask: Why are more doors opening for them now?
SIGNS OF CHANGE
As surveys over the past decade have shown, the number of women at all levels of supply chain organizations has steadily grown. Historical statistics are hard to come by, but women represented 11% of respondents to the 2006 Career Patterns in Logistics and Supply Chain Management study of senior supply chain professionals conducted by The Ohio State University for the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP)1 and 28% of respondents to the 2012 survey.2 More recently, women represented 50% of respondents to a CSCMP survey of early-career supply chain professionals’ attitudes about their profession.3
The number of women of all backgrounds in the top echelons of management remains small. Only a handful of women CEOs lead Fortune 100 companies, and about 5% of chief supply chain officers at Fortune 500 companies are women. In supply chain organizations, women hold just 14% of senior vice president, executive vice president, and C-suite positions, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Transportation and Logistics.4
The fourth annual “Women in Supply Chain Survey,” conducted by the research and advisory firm Gartner in partnership with AWESOME, found that on average, women hold 17% of C-level positions at carriers, 3PLs, supply chain technology firms, and supply chain consulting firms.5 (CSCMP also contributed to the research.)
The Gartner–AWESOME survey also found that, after more than doubling, from 7% in 2016 to 15% in 2017, the percentage of women supply chain executives across all respondents’ companies declined, to 14% in 2018 and 11% in 2019. While that decline is momentarily troubling, there are signs of change that bode well for the future. The percentage of female supply chain vice presidents and senior directors jumped from 20% in 2018 to 28% in 2019, suggesting that there’s a growing pipeline of women who are qualified to take on higher positions. Another good sign is that 60% of respondents said they were leading initiatives to recruit, develop, and promote women in their companies’ supply chain organizations—a big leap from 44% just a year earlier.6
THE MOMENTUM BUILDS
There are many reasons more women supply chain professionals are taking leadership positions, but from a high-level perspective they can be grouped into three main categories:
1. More companies are recognizing that supply chain provides a solid foundation for companywide leadership.
During her 30-year career as a supply chain professional at Fortune 500 companies and 11 years on CSCMP’s board of directors, AWESOME Executive Director Heather Sheehan saw supply chain management come to play “a bigger and bigger role in C-suite conversations.” A major reason, she says, is the growing recognition that—regardless of gender—supply chain professionals have a unique vantage point that makes them especially qualified for companywide management positions. “Because supply chain touches every aspect of a company’s business and links functional areas and operations, all the way through plan, source, make, deliver, and return,” she says, “experienced supply chain leaders know how everything works together. They see the whole system; they aren’t bringing just one functional perspective.” As more women enter the supply chain profession, advocate for themselves, and move up the ladder within that field, they’re simultaneously making themselves visible as qualified candidates for corporate leadership positions, she observes.
One example is that of Sonia Syngal, CEO of apparel retailer Gap Inc. In a 2018 interview with the U.S. television network ABC, Syngal, who at the time was president and CEO of Old Navy, credited her varied experience in sourcing, product, and supply chain operations and strategy in a wide range of industries as a factor in her ascent to the top. “A breadth of different experiences is really important … all of my jobs have been core line jobs—meaning, core to creating the value that is essential to a company.”7
But there’s another reason supply chain management skills are more valued at the top now. E-commerce has changed the nature of what corporations need from CEOs, writes Nader Mikhail, founder and CEO of the supply chain technology platform Elementum. Corporate value is increasingly driven by the volume of satisfied and repeat customers; by the effective management of cost of goods sold; and by the impact of corporate social responsibility programs, he observes. This dynamic means board members “are increasingly turning to leaders who have made careers out of translating the big picture and thousands of moving parts into executional reality.” For that reason, Mikhail says, the ranks of future CEOs will be filled with former chief supply chain officers, not just former financial executives.8
2. More companies are recognizing the business benefits of diversity.
While many businesses have a long way to go, overall there is a greater awareness of both conscious and unconscious bias and less discrimination against women in business than at any time in history. “The world has changed ... the typical bias we used to see doesn’t get a pass anymore,” Sheehan says.
Importantly, companies are learning to value diversity of all kinds because it equates to diversity of thought—a necessary foundation for developing creative, effective solutions to business problems. According to Deloitte, research has shown that diversity improves profitability and the ability to innovate. By pursuing more diverse talent, companies can introduce different perspectives, experiences, and strengths that will support the technology-focused jobs of the future.9
In enterprises that value diversity, there are, of course, more opportunities for women to rise to executive-level positions. But inclusivity also encourages the development of support systems for women that will help them advance, Sheehan points out. This means women have more access to co-sponsors and mentors than before. Moreover, in a business culture that values diversity, women are stepping up “with more courage and confidence to pursue C-level leadership positions,” she says.
3. Women bring something different to the table.
The women executives we spoke with believe that the traits and qualities that make effective, respected leaders apply to everyone, regardless of gender, and that reaching those heights also requires being exceptionally good at one’s job. Yet they also say that women bring some additional strengths and outlooks to leadership positions that may differ from those of their male counterparts.
Those differences may play a role in their success as leaders within supply chain organizations. In a blog post, SCM World Chief Content Officer Kevin O’Marah posits that women are especially effective in supply chain management because many are excellent at multitasking and cross-functional thinking, at collaboration, and at communications and utilizing teams.10
Those qualities and skills also have a measurable positive impact at the C-level. In a 2016 Harvard Business Review article, researchers from the Peterson Institute for Global Economics and Duke University documented that companies that moved from having no women in corporate leadership to having women constitute 30% of leadership typically achieved a 1-percentage-point increase in net margin. That translates to a 15% increase in profitability for a typical firm, they said. There are many potential reasons for that profitability advantage, but the researchers homed in on one in particular: the greater diversity of skills that female senior leaders contribute to corporations “increases effectiveness in monitoring staff performance and [leads to] less gender discrimination throughout management ranks, which helps to recruit, promote, and retain talent.”11
ADVICE FOR THE UPWARD BOUND
While some of the structural and cultural barriers that have largely kept women out of the top ranks are coming down, that in itself is not sufficient to vault women supply chain executives into the C-suite—and keep them there. For some, it may require changing their approach to leadership, a reality many women leaders continue to confront today. Two-thirds of the 550 respondents to the consulting firm KPMG’s 2019 poll of executive women said that they have had to change their leadership styles to a greater degree than their male counterparts. Similarly, 81% of women respondents said they believe that women must be more adaptable than men in order to lead successfully and advance in their careers. Meanwhile, 49% said they struggle with how to maintain their authenticity as they rise through the ranks.12
By all accounts, working with supportive, effective mentors (whether male or female) is essential. Speaking at the 2015 CSCMP annual conference, Debbie Lentz, currently president, global supply chain at Electrocomponents PLC, asserted that if we want to see more women supply chain professionals in the C-suite, then women who are already there should consider it their responsibility to mentor others.13
Making personal connections with women supply chain professionals who have achieved that level of success is ideal, but with few of them available, an additional way to benefit from their wisdom and experience is to attend conferences and participate in professional associations. Another is to read relevant interviews, articles, and blog posts. For example, the three leaders profiled in this article—Susan Brennan, COO of Bloom Energy; Karen Kenney, president of Janel Group; and Lily Shen, president and CEO of Transfix—all offer sound advice for upward-bound women in supply chain.
AWESOME’s 2019 Action Agenda, “Seven Smart Moves to Make Bigger Waves for Women’s Leadership,” synthesizes recommendations from women supply chain leaders into seven strategies for succeeding in high-level leadership roles within and beyond supply chain organizations. Very briefly summarized, they include:14
1. Help others understand the importance of supply chain management to business success. Educate your company’s management team about the value of supply chain and how it impacts the organization’s top-level goals and strategies. Be the expert who understands the bigger business picture and supports other groups that need supply chain expertise.
2. Advocate for diversity. Help your company identify and initiate or expand corporate initiatives that improve diversity. Pay particular attention to those that enable women to succeed, such as family-leave policies and recruiting for diversity.
3. Assess your strengths and pursue opportunities where you can grow. Learn new skills that align with your company’s priorities and acquire knowledge that speaks corporate management’s “language,” such as finance and profit and loss.
4. Expand your network. Proactively seek advice and knowledge from others to open a path for advancement. Build both internal relationships across functions and management levels and external relations with business partners and outside suppliers and vendors.
5. Build a deep “bench” in your organization. Assure a strong cadre of candidates for promotion by becoming a mentor or sponsor. Support the careers of high-potential women, giving them “stretch” assignments and introducing them to new people, ideas, and experiences. Advocate for them when assignments and promotions are being discussed.
6. Reach back further. Be a role model for future supply chain professionals and young women getting started in the field. Attend career days, serve as an academic resource, and develop internships.
7. Develop allies who are men. Emphasize the business value of diversity and avoid an “us vs. them” mentality. Work collaboratively on diversity-related issues and share mentoring across genders. Recognize unconscious bias and address it in a constructive way.
IN THE VANGUARD
Women are increasingly making their way into the highest levels of corporate management; according to Fortune magazine, as of mid 2019, there were 33 women CEOs among the Fortune 500 companies. That’s a record high, but it still represents less than 7% of the total.
While the number of women CEOs at very large companies is a good indicator of progress, that statistic alone does not fully represent what’s happening on the ground. For one thing, CEO isn’t the only title in the C-suite; as previously noted, there are other corporate positions women can and do fill. For another, although large publicly traded enterprises are more widely known and reported on, they’re not the only ones offering leadership opportunities for women. In fact, as our three executive profiles attest, more and more women are at the helm of mid-sized and smaller companies too.
Experienced supply chain experts are well positioned to be effective corporate leaders. At the same time, research has demonstrated the financial and performance benefits of choosing women leaders. Put those facts together, and it seems inevitable that the women supply chain professionals who have already earned a place in the C-suite will—and should—have a lot more company soon.
Editor's note: This article was updated on May 11, 2020, to show the current company and title for Sonia Syngal, CEO of Gap Inc.
1. “People: The Power behind the Supply Chain,” Inbound Logistics, January 2007, https://www.inboundlogistics.com/cms/article/people-the-power-behind-the-supply-chain/
2. “Survey finds supply chain professionals upbeat about jobs, career,” CSCMP’s Supply Chain Quarterly, Q3 2012, https://www.supplychainquarterly.com/news/20120925-survey-finds-supply-chain-professionals-upbeat-about-jobs-career/
4. Katie Date, “Summary Report for the Women in Supply Chain Summit: Achieving Balance in SCM,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Transportation & Logistics, June 2019.
5. AWESOME/Gartner “2019 Women in Supply Chain Research,” May 2, 2019, https://www.awesomeleaders.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/2019-AWESOME-GartnerReport.pdf
6. AWESOME/Gartner, 2019.
7. Anieze Osakwe, “Sonia Syngal on how to become CEO of a company,” ABC News, April 3, 2018, https://abcnews.go.com/Business/sonia-syngal-ceo-company/story?id=54213193
9. Deloitte, “Women in supply chain management: Diversity and inclusion in manufacturing” (undated) https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/operations/articles/women-in-supply-chain-management.html
10. Kevin O’Marah, “Women in Supply Chain: The Mary Barra Example,” Forbes, June 21, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kevinomarah/2018/06/21/women-in-supply-chain-the-mary-barra-example/#36831b8c54fd
11. Marcus Noland and Tyler Moran, “Study: Firms With More Women in the C-Suite Are More Profitable,” Harvard Business Review, February 8, 2016, https://hbr.org/2016/02/study-firms-with-more-women-in-the-c-suite-are-more-profitable
12. KPMG, “Advancing the Future of Women in Business: A KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit Report,” June 19, 2019, https://womensleadership.kpmg.us/kpmg-womens-leadership-report.html/?utm_source=USATODAY&utm_content=Article4
13. Toby Gooley, “As you rise, you must lift,” CSCMP’s Supply Chain Quarterly, Quarter 4 2015, https://www.supplychainquarterly.com/columns/20151021-as-you-rise-you-must-lift/
14. AWESOME, “2019 Action Agenda: Seven Smart Moves to Make Bigger Waves for Women’s Leadership,” September 2019, https://www.awesomeleaders.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/AWESOME-Action-Agenda-2019-091519.pdf