Inside Logistics

From surviving to thriving

Women in supply chain share advice on getting ahead in the industry


Participants listen to a speaker at Engage! Women in Supply Chain Conference. (Photos: Van Horne Institute)

April 5, 2013
by Kathryn Semcow

CALGARY, Alberta—Picture a warehouse supervisor, truck vendor or railway executive and to many the image of a man will come to mind. Supply chain and logistics, after all, has been a male domain since it earned its name as an industry with military logistics in the 1950s. Yet the turnout of more than 140 participants—mostly women—at the Engage! Women in Supply Chain Conference hosted by the Van Horne Institute in Calgary suggests otherwise. Not only are women becoming active members of the industry, but employers are eager to attract them. In fact, according to the most recent Annual Survey of the Canadian Supply Chain Professional, 39 percent of those employed in the Canadian supply chain sector are now female.

Still, the survey notes that women in the industry are yet to reach the same heights as men. The wage gap between men and women stands at 17.7 percent, with men earning on average $91,181 and women $75,033. There are also significantly more women than men in clerical and administrative positions and significantly more men in managerial roles.

Those attending the conference held at the University of Calgary’s downtown campus, however, are set to change this circumstance by building dynamic careers in supply chain occupations across many different industries. Here, they share tips on not only how to survive, but to thrive in the logistics and supply chain world.

Break your own barriers

Kara Slemko, director of supply management operations for Canadian Natural Resources Ltd (CNRL), encourages women to step outside of their comfort zones. “We are our own worst enemies,” she insists, arguing that women often face greater self-doubt and are less likely to perceive themselves as qualified for new opportunities than men are.

“When women are considering applying for a job we feel we need to have 100 percent of the skill set. Men think they only need 50 percent.”

Bobbi Lambright, president of ATCO Electric Operations, also encourages women to stretch themselves. “I’ve been a lot of firsts in my career,” she says. “The opportunities are there. We create our own barriers.”

“Take the opportunity in front of you. Don’t second-guess. The way people get ahead is by doing.”

Engage

When it comes to getting the job done, attitude may be more important than skills and experience. According to Lambright, skill sets are transferable across industries, but enthusiasm and engagement make the difference in succeeding in the supply chain. “People who take a genuine interest and take on a little more have almost an unlimited opportunity for growth,” she says.

This includes being willing to tackle whatever needs to be done, including small jobs others may consider “beneath them.” “It’s not demeaning to do these tasks,” she says. “If I have a guest, I’ll get them a cup of coffee.”

Lambright’s message to employees with a limiting attitude: “Get over it!”

She also warns industry members to avoid working in a silo and engage in teamwork.  “There is nothing more powerful in an organization,” she says, “than those who know where the company needs to go, are committed to getting there and throw their heart and soul into doing it”.

Know the business

When Slemko began her career at former employer CN Rail, one of her first tasks was to learn how to operate a train. Although she would never work as an engineer, this experience offered her a valuable awareness and appreciation of company operations. “You need to understand what the business requirements are in order to be the best at what you do,” she insists. “If you don’t understand the business and have that credibility, I don’t think you’ll go that high.”

Martha Cooper, professor of logistics at Ohio State University, agrees. She says a common complaint throughout the industry is that top management lacks understanding of the supply chain. “You have to speak their language,” she says. In particular, she encourages supply chain professionals to study and understand finance, as C-level leaders tend to focus on numbers and the bottom line.

Stand up for yourself

While supply chain managers and logistics professionals require a broad understanding of all business segments, they also need to defend their own territory. According to four women who work in the supply chain division of ENMAX Corp, one of their greatest challenges is influencing other divisions of the organization. “We have a unique culture with a diverse demographic,” explains corporate buyer Roula Wilde.

Joan Burke, manager of corporate procurement agrees and says she often finds herself “challenging engineer-type roles.”

She says “They have the tech knowledge, but it is your job to challenge the requests”.

Generation supply chain manager Andrea Smallbone insists you have to stand up for yourself. “Don’t be bullied by anyone. Find your own voice and stick to it.”

Junior Buyer Kerri Somes agrees. “Be confident in the knowledge you have.”

These women can gather inspiration from ENMAX president and chief executive officer Gianna Manes, who says leaders must have courage. This includes the courage to speak up, make difficult decisions, fire poor performers, lead change and hold others and yourself accountable. Courage, she adds, often requires “exercising your personal moral muscle”.

“Focus on doing the right thing more than focusing on doing things right.”

Lisa Ross, Director of Procurement Services for Altalink also emphasizes the importance of integrity, even when it requires challenging your superiors. She recalls a time while working for a former company that she uncovered an ethical breach. While the investigation led to serious repercussions including loss of employment for those who were involved, she says she has no regrets. “Never remain silent on ethics violations.”

Be “FAB”ulous

A reason women may be missing out on promotions is that they fail to promote themselves. “We need to blow our own trumpets,” says Smallbone. “Often women are too reserved and we don’t take enough credit. Then we go unnoticed.”

According to Sher Zaman, a senior HR director with Supply Chain Management, a fear of appearing ambitious can sabotage a woman’s career.

“Men see ambition as a positive trait, while women tend to be behind the scenes doing their job, hoping they’ll get appreciated; and that doesn’t always happen unfortunately.”

Kevin Maynard, executive director of the Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council encourages individuals to promote themselves as if they were a product. This involves creating their own personal value proposition, not only to professional clients but internal customers such as your boss, and personal customers such as your spouse or children. He suggests using the F-A-B formula, which stands for features, advantages and benefits. Examine your features, the advantages those features offer to your customers, as well as the benefits or impact to those customers. The result is your own personal sales pitch.

Strike a balance

With long hours and plenty of opportunity for growth, many women struggle to find balance between work, family, community and leisure. Ruth Amarilla, manager of strategic spend management at ConocoPhillips insists balance is possible—as long as you remember it is a relative term. “Work/life balance means different things to different people. It can also mean different things for the same people at different stages in their lives.”

She stresses the importance of knowing your values and priorities and sticking to them. “It’s about saying ‘yes’ to those things that make us better versions of ourselves and saying ‘no’ to those that don’t.”

The CEO of YWCA of Calgary, Sue Tomney agrees. “I believe you can have it all,” she says. “You just can’t have it all at the same time and it won’t all be perfect.”

From her work with vulnerable women throughout the city and her own experience raising children while managing a career, she testifies that women can survive in the work world. In fact, she insists, women can do better than survive—they can go from “surviving to thriving.”

While women in supply chain face a number of challenges, the benefits they experience can be worth it. Deborah Hurst, associate dean and MBA program director for the faculty of business at Athabasca University, says according to her research most women in the industry were highly positive about their experiences. “They really love this field. They believe it is challenging and exciting. They love the travel and all the different demands that are coming at them at great speed every day. They are really thriving on that.”