Women in the supply chain; insight from a seasoned ally

Don Firth discusses women in the supply chainDon Firth

The supply chain needs women and women could benefit from the many, interesting, well-paying jobs in the field. However, the number of women working in the field is lower than ever. To dig deeper into the current state of women in logistics, Fronetics turned to industry expert, Don Firth, CEO of job boards including: Jobsinlogistics.com, JobsInManufacturing.com, JobsInTrucks.com and other influential niche job boards. Firth has over forty years’ experience in the field, including positions as SVP Logistics for Pathmark Supermarkets, and Partner of the logistics consulting practice of Deloitte, among others. He was the editor and chief author of the bestselling book, Profitable Logistics Management.

Firth provides history, context, and suggestions for women in the supply chain.

You’ve had a long, successful career in business. Can you talk a bit about this history, and your view of women working in the supply chain, or in business in general? 

The profitability of an entire company relies on the supply chain. It’s a huge and often a neglected opportunity for companies.

As far as who chooses a career in the supply chain— it’s not a profession like medicine or law. Not many women think, “I must be in logistics, or in the supply chain.” It’s not a career most women think of, and it’s not a career men think of either.

Traditionally, most people in the supply chain started from the bottom and worked their way up. They may have gotten an entry job as a selector or forklift driver and worked their way up to supervisor, warehouse manager and then executive positions within logistics. But all that is changing. Many colleges are offering degrees in supply chain management or including logistics and supply chain courses in their curriculum, more and more men and women are choosing this as a career choice.

One barrier, for some women, is that many jobs in distribution centers require candidates to have the ability to lift 50 lbs. For example, in the food industry there are very large, bulky cases. Some women are very strong so they might apply. If you’re lifting 50lb cases multiple times an hour, that’s a lot. Some women could do it, but some women can’t. Some men can do it, and some men can’t.

Women make up 38% of the visitors to Firth’s website Jobsinlogistics.com and 32% of the visitors on his website Jobsintrucks.com. These numbers seem high compared to the amount of women in the field, perhaps because some spouses use the websites to find jobs for their husbands.

If I had to guess how many women were in logistics, I would say 20% to 30%. Whereas women working in warehouses may be as low as 10%, other positions such as business development, administrative, freight agents, dispatchers, inventory management, purchasing and supply chain analysts are significantly higher. These help women with lots of talent rise to the top.

So can we correlate that one reason why there might not be a lot of women in the supply chain is because women might not apply for lower level positions, and therefore don’t get an opportunity to rise up through the ranks to middle-management or upper- management?

Perhaps. This may be so for positions such as warehouse associates, maintenance workers, mechanics and drivers. These have traditionally been considered a “man’s world.” For these positions there may even be a bias, a reluctance to hire too many women because most of the people working in the field are men. It will take some time to change. But the times they are a changing for these traditional roles. I just returned from New York on a plane where the pilot was female. We are seeing a growing number of women getting their Class A driver licenses and we have many husband and wife teams registered on JobsInTrucks.com

Are there specific things you feel women can bring to the logistics field?

I have met many women who hold higher level positions in the supply chain. The one key factor they all have is the desire to succeed. They are able to look at the bigger picture of the supply chain and analyze the trade-offs related to different strategies. Those that are on the business development side of the business have great client relationship and social networking skills.

 Is there a specific way you currently promote women, or could do so on your websites?

 We want to encourage more women to enter the supply chain profession. We send out logistics bulletins to our registered passive and active candidates to provide them with information on how best to find their next career move. We encourage women to participate on our Facebook pages. For JobsInLogistics.com, 40% of the ‘likes’ come from women, yet only 17% on JobsInTrucks.com.

At the recent Mid-American Trucking Show, we were pleased to see significantly more women drivers visiting the JobsInTrucks.com booth. We list 28,000 open driver positions on our website Jobsintrucks.com. Everyone is looking for drivers.

This can be a taxing career role for women, especially on long haul routes, where drivers can be away from home for two to six weeks at a time. Often we see women drivers as part of a husband and wife team. Once people have children this profession can be hard. Family life impacts women and men, both, in this field. Single, young men see trucking as an adventure at age 21, but once they reach age 29 and have children, they want to spend more time with their families, thus contributing to a shortage of drivers.

There was a lawsuit in 1964, Weeks vs. Southern Bell, in which a female employee was suing because she was told she couldn’t apply for a higher paying job within the company. Mrs. Weeks was told the job went to men only because it required heavy lifting and women weren’t allowed to lift more than 30 lbs on the job. Do you see similar things happening in the logistics field, even today?

Wow that was over 50 years ago. Well, the laws have changed but I think the bias is still there. However it still falls back on the physical ability of both men and women to work on jobs that require heavy lifting or strenuous activity.

Do you still see a lot of prejudice against women in logistics?

Many companies are advertising for women in all areas. They’re being careful about hiring processes because of discrimination laws. In reality, I’m sure there is some bias for the heavy-lifting jobs. If people are looking at resumes and they see a female applying and a male applying for a heavy-lifting position, unfortunately I think they’ll interview the man first. On the supervisory level, it doesn’t matter if you can lift things or not. For other positions, I believe it’s a level playing field.

National statistics report that “in 2013, women who worked full time in wage and salary jobs had median usual weekly earnings of $706, which represented 82% of men’s median weekly earnings ($860),” which is in line with what is happening in logistics management. According to the Logistics Management report, “women still lag behind – earning a median salary of $86,370, while men with similar job descriptions pull in more than $100,000.” What do you think it will take to equalize the gender gap? 

I don’t know what to think of the accuracy of these statistics, because there can be many factors that skew statistics, such as which companies are being compared, what type of jobs, where are the jobs located, what’s the career history, etc. However, I know that someone should not be looking at a woman with the same skillset as a man and say, “Ok I’m going to pay her less because she’s a woman.” Whereas I’m sure it happens, it’s just wrong.

What do you think about the future of women in the supply chain?

I think there’s going to be slow growth on the manufacturing floor, warehouse operations and in transportation. But I think the high level positions are very open for women. It requires a very analytical mind. Women are especially good at thinking through the many complex pieces of the supply chain. One of the best things about this work is that it’s not repetitive. Things change every day. I think people, men and women alike, will get hooked on logistics! Opportunities are there.

Females should be looking at the business schools that have supply chain courses. Once you have that degree you’re going to be starting at a managerial level. This can lead to salaries anywhere from $85k to $150k for leading supply chain professionals, with some earning more than $225k. Supply Chain salaries are going up tremendously because companies are realizing that supply chain is the key to profitability.

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