Supporting and retaining women in supply chain remains critical to not only the success of women in this space, but in many ways also to fostering sustainable and resilient supply chains.

According to a study by Gartner, women representation in C-suite supply chain roles has risen from 19% in 2022 to 26% in 2023. Encouragingly, there has also been an increase in the percentage of women in the supply chain workforce, from 39% to 41%. While these are considered positive shifts in the industry, there is a notable lag in the percentage of frontline roles held by women in this space, ranging from 26% to 34% across various leadership levels.

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In a recent panel discussion hosted by the SAP North America Business Women’s Network and EY Women in SAP, women supply chain leaders shed light on some important trends, challenges, and strategies for advancing women in supply chain.

The discussion was moderated by Lori Foster, managing director for EY SAP Consulting. On the panel, I was joined by Etosha Thurman, chief marketing and solutions officer for SAP Intelligent Spend & Business Network, Regenia Sanders, partner at EY Business Consulting, and Angelee Tango, manager for EY SAP Extended Warehouse Management. Opening remarks were provided by Yolanda Kirksey, SAP Alliance leader and director for SAP Ariba U.S. Go-to-Market for EY.

A few key strategies emerged from the discussion for how organizations can help to elevate women in supply chain:

1. Support the choice to stay with flexibility

A consequence of the global pandemic was a moment of reassessment for women juggling full-time careers with responsibilities at home. In that moment, many women (and men) chose to shift their priorities outside of work or simply had to make that shift to address the needs at home. What we as business leaders can learn from observing this trend is the need to create environments that support women and accommodate work-life balance.

An important point called out in this panel discussion is that work-life balance looks different for everyone. Organizations must set an expectation of respect and boundaries that allow for all employees to manage the many responsibilities they have outside of work — regardless of marital status, if they have children or grandchildren, or if they are a caregiver in another capacity. A culture supportive of pursuing career aspirations while maintaining a healthy balance in personal life empowers women to effectively set and maintain boundaries as well as seek help when needed.

2. Recruit for top skills to succeed in supply chain roles

The panel named skills like curiosity, customer focus, relationship building, change management, crisis management, and communication as both crucial factors for success in this field and areas in which women tend to excel, citing the Production and Operations Management Society (POMS) study. Collaboration was underscored by several panelists as essential. Tango shared, “From determining the technology we want to use to the final stage of implementation, the need to continuously evaluate requires everyone to be on board.”

The panel suggested that having more women engaged in these transformative projects helping facilitate collaboration is a strategic way to support innovation that sticks. As Sanders stated, “Making sure [internal stakeholders’] input is being heard when gathering requirements is a critical difference-maker to having an organization that actually embraces technology versus being intimidated by it.”

3. Provide forums that encourage open discussion

At any stage in your career, it can be helpful to hear of the challenges other women supply chain professionals have faced and how they overcame them. What Foster shared on this topic stood out to me: “It’s easy for people to see where you are today, but not what you went through to get there.” That sense of mutual respect and understanding helps to build confidence.

Role models also play an important role. Thurman spoke to the importance of representation: “Seeing people who look like you and can manage a life like you is important to how we move forward.”

Of the many valuable individual takeaways from this discussion, a few specific pieces of advice resonated with me for women looking to elevate their careers in supply chain:

1. Set and hold boundaries where they make sense for you

You must be willing to reshape your own conceptions of how you need to be perceived and what your role needs to be. Instead of trying to meet this picture-perfect standard, work from an understanding of what you want and need so you can set and maintain reasonable boundaries with a career that requires significant flexibility.

2. Know that you belong and operate in that way

As a woman working in a male-dominated field, it is likely that you will experience moments where you or your contributions are slighted, discounted, or ignored. While we are working to change that behavior, when this happens it’s important to remember to focus on what you want to achieve. If you feel that you are not yet at a point in your career to remedy the situation directly, ask for help. 

3. Use your voice

There is an advantage to being different. If you are one woman in a room of 50 men and you can clearly articulate your point well, you will be remembered. As you build your brand, opportunities will follow. And when you have the chance to support other women in your field, lend your voice to advocate, guide, and champion the next generation of leaders.

There is a lot that we can learn from each other, in and across industries. These leaders conveyed inspiring journeys in their supply chain careers where they have encountered and continue to navigate a wide spectrum of challenges, but also have found fulfillment in this line of work. This open discussion represented a significant stride toward acknowledging the challenges, opportunities, and collective efforts needed to empower and elevate women in supply chain.

As these forums continue, my hope is that they will not only support and inspire women through a vast network of supply chain professionals, but also drive toward a more equitable and inclusive supply chain landscape.

Darcy MacClaren is chief revenue officer for SAP Digital Supply Chain.

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