I've been attending the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals' (CSCMP) annual conference since the late 1980s. Back then, women attendees were few in number. We shared empathetic smiles as we passed each other in the hallways and thought of ourselves as members of a small but determined minority who had much to offer but had to fight for recognition and advancement.
Things have changed since then. The number of women in supply chain-related professions has steadily grown, as have the ranks of female CSCMP members. (Women currently make up 22 percent of membership.) And although women are still decidedly in the minority at the annual conference, nowadays we have plenty of company. Other industry organizations and professional associations have seen similar demographic shifts.
Any discussion of how far women have come in our profession should not focus solely on numbers, however. As a thought-provoking session I attended at CSCMP's 2015 Annual Conference made clear, that discussion must move to the next level.
"Women in the C-Suite: Leadership Lessons From the Top" featured four supply chain leaders: Ann Drake, chairman and chief executive officer of DSC Logistics; Laurel Junk, chief supply chain and procurement officer at Kaiser Permanente; Debbie Lentz, senior vice president and chief supply chain officer of Toys "R" Us; and Kathy Wengel, vice president, supply chain for Johnson & Johnson. The session was put together by an organization for women supply chain executives called AWESOME (Achieving Women's Excellence in Supply chain Operations, Management, and Education), which Drake, the first woman to receive CSCMP's Distinguished Service Award, founded in 2013. As AWESOME's Web address—www.awesomeleaders.org—suggests, the conversation is no longer about women entering the profession but about their role as corporate leaders and shapers of supply chain strategy.
Each panelist spoke about her experiences and the different qualities and capabilities she needed at each stage in her career. Perhaps the most important takeaway from the session, though, was how to be an effective and respected leader ... not a female leader, but a leader—of a supply chain organization, of a business, and of people. That, they agreed, was what brought them to the top of their profession.
Still, the panelists did not gloss over the challenges women continue to face on their way to the top. Some of those challenges may be their own doing. When Junk announced plans to establish Kaiser Permanente's first formal supply chain organization, and said that she would be hiring three high-level supply chain managers, three male employees immediately ("I don't think five minutes had gone by") told her they wanted to apply for those positions. A more qualified woman, she said, took three weeks to approach her and ask for more information.
Not every female supply chain manager undermines her own chances for advancement, of course, but the tale Junk told is not unique. How to help qualified, capable women stop holding themselves back? Mentoring, the panelists said, is a key success factor. In Lentz's view, 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. She shared advice she received from one of her own mentors, a highly successful African businesswoman whose words are worth remembering: "As you rise, you must lift."