Supply Chain Council of European Union |

Breaking procurement’s glass ceiling is not just about gender diversity

This is a contributed op-ed written by Allison Ford-Langstaff, a managing partner at 4C Associates.

Most procurement departments are already well recognized for their contribution to business success, and others are still transitioning into a strategic business function, via cultural change programs, process enhancement and, of course, through the ever more sophisticated deployment of digital technology. Yet for all this enhancement and progress, female procurement leaders still represent a minority in the boardroom. On average, 80% of these roles in top companies are still taken up by male leaders.

However, the future is starting to look more positive. According to a recent survey of more than 300 CPOs in the U.S., Europe and Asia across 14 industries, 60% of the respondents stated there were more women in their organization compared to three years ago and only 6% said the number has decreased. In spite of this, the same survey also highlighted that women account for only 25% of the members of procurement committees and management teams and fewer than one in three buyers is a woman.

A McKinsey research study suggests that CPOs whose organizations are over 40% female have reported significantly better financial performance over the last five years and 65% of CPOs noticed an improvement in their procurement performance linked to an increased number of women in their teams.

Despite the clear benefits of a gender-balanced workforce, including improved business performance, innovation and enhanced company reputation, the ratio of women in leadership roles is still imbalanced and companies are struggling to attract and retain female procurement talent. How can women in procurement break the glass ceiling?

What businesses can do

As with any leadership initiative, executive sponsorship needs to come from the top — having visible female role models, mentoring the next generation of female leaders and holding the senior leadership team accountable for improving the gender imbalance is necessary. Removing unconscious gender bias is not just an HR initiative, it needs to become part of the organization’s culture where progress toward gender diversity is being measured and communicated across teams.

Setting up a promotion process that is transparent and allows more women to move up in their career with level-based pay, as well as recognizing everyone who helps advance gender diversity at the firm can also help shift the imbalance and inspire more women to step up.

Flexibility around family leave is something that can still be seen as a career setback for women. But there has been a significant shift in more fathers taking paternity leave, giving women more options to return to work quicker and with fewer time limitations related to childcare.

Although having options to return to work quicker can be an enabling factor, it is not what every woman wants. Recently, I had a conversation with a C-level executive from a large financial services institution who consciously took five years out of her career to raise young children. She highlighted that the firm she now works for actively recruits women who possess significant expertise, to help them back onto the corporate ladder. However, it has not yet worked out how to ‘fast track’ some of these women through the ranks following their return to obtain seniority levels appropriate to their capabilities.

Barclays Bank’s Women in Procurement initiative, recognized in this year’s CIPS Awards, is a great example of advancing the gender agenda in procurement and changing the culture from within. This initiative is focused on increasing the number of women at leadership levels, introducing a mandatory balanced interview panel for all hiring campaigns, delivering unconscious bias training, raising awareness of the initiative and promoting work-life balance. Since the launch of the program, there has been an increase in female applicants from 28% to 36%, 55% of all new starters are female, and women in leadership roles increased by 4%.

What can women do?

Finding a mentor within the business, together with focusing on structured career development opportunities to refine and develop new skills plays an essential role in advancing into a leadership role. The lack of female role models makes it more difficult for women in procurement to see what success looks like and be inspired by other female leaders. However, procurement now plays a key role in the strategies behind many leading businesses and women in procurement need to talk up their achievements, both internally and externally and not be afraid to go beyond savings when discussing their success. It’s equally important to create support networks and to share success stories of women in procurement to motivate female talent to embrace a career in the profession.

Women should gather a group of like-minded women (and men) around them, and preferably not just in procurement. If you look at the most successful people — men and women — none of them are siloed in any way. They network and prioritize meeting new people and gathering new ideas. Increasingly, the more senior one is, the more their immediate sphere of influence moves outside their vertical function in favor of a cross-functional, horizontal outlook.

To break the glass ceiling and feel acknowledged in the workplace, women in procurement need to acknowledge their own talent and skills first. They need to see beyond stereotypes and current limitations and showcase their wide range of capabilities, including technical know-how and interpersonal skills to make their way up the leadership ladder.

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