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Not there yet – 3 reasons why gender inequity in supply chain management limits success

1st March 2021

Pamela Steele

Pamela Steele, Global Supply Chain Transformation Director

As we approach another International Women’s Day, it makes me think about the gender-based issues and challenges we still see in the supply chain field. As an African woman and business owner, equality is a topic close to my heart and I am saddened that women are still terribly underrepresented in my field.

In 2013, I started a management consultancy specialising in supply chain transformation for the public health and humanitarian sectors through consultancy, research and training. I knew I was entering a male-dominated field with shockingly low female ownership and participation, but I was unfazed because I wanted to make a difference.  I started with no venture capital and didn’t take a salary for the first four years, as I was so driven to “make things right”. Today, eight years on, Pamela Steele Associates (PSA) is stronger than ever, thanks to the early, staunch support from key clients like UNFPA and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In 2021, the existence of inequality in supply chain is detrimental for a number of reasons.

1. Leads to a failure to understand and therefore meet the needs of beneficiaries


In the supply chain sector, there is a greater need than ever for leaders with diverse experience, yet many organisations in this industry remain male-dominated, especially at leadership level. In 2018, an average of 14% of companies reported that women held executive-level supply chain positions, More specifically, within the health and humanitarian supply chain sector, male domination has affected the ability of humanitarian organisations to meet the needs of women effectively and to address their concerns, especially in the context of emergency relief (Steele, P, Agius, K, 2016, Health and Humanitarian Logistics and Supply Chains: A Career for Women). Health and humanitarian programmes must have a diverse workforce that fully understands the varying needs and aspirations of their beneficiaries, and this cannot be achieved with a male-dominated workforce. In health and humanitarian logistics, women must be well represented in the last mile to help overcome cultural and religious sensitivities and to support the forecasting of specific needs.

2. Results in Economic Losses

Encouraging greater female leadership in the business of supply chain management and logistics makes economic sense. There is robust evidence of the broad and substantial economic benefits of supporting women-owned businesses. The World Economic Forum has highlighted the positive correlation between gender equality, a country’s GDP, and its rank in the Human Development Index. The World Bank has also shown how the misallocation of women’s labour results in economic losses. Women can be more capable of tapping into local business networks and avoiding substantial constraints, such as financial or regulatory barriers. Investing in women can help put profits back into the community, and consumers—principally women—are more likely to try a company’s products when they know the company supports women-owned businesses. Simply put, financing women-owned businesses and small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and integrating them into global Supply Chains makes economic sense; it is good for business, and good for gender equality.

3. Represents missed opportunities to use critical knowledge held by women

Image credit Jessica Felicio | Unsplash

How can women make a difference when they are not represented—or, if they are, they are present at an extremely low level? Until now, those who make supply chain decisions about the goods and services that benefit those women have been male practitioners. In health situations, however, the majority of those who visit the health clinic corridors and who understand the problem of stock-outs have been women.

Networks for female leaders and professionals in supply chain have been created to help in this regard. AWESOME (Achieving Women’s Excellence in Supply Chain Operations, Management, and Education) launched in 2012 to advance women supply chain leaders, aiming to expand and leverage a strong community to improve and transform the future of supply chain. Since its launch, AWESOME has engaged nearly 1,500 senior supply chain leaders from a wide range of companies and industries. Within the health and humanitarian supply chain, the Women’s Institute for Supply Chain Excellence (WISE) and Women in Supply Chain Leadership (WiSCL) have been created to support female humanitarian logisticians.

How can we improve gender equity in supply chain?

I would like to see more African women-owned businesses in supply chain and logistics. PSA is conducting a study to identify female-owned supply chain business in Africa and determine how many have been awarded contracts by aid organisations – or if not, what is hindering them from a supply and demand perspective.

Today PSA employs almost 40 staff across our programmes. We take pride in being a woman-owned business working to ensure that no one, regardless of gender, suffers due to a lack of quality-assured essential medicines in Africa.

What can you do? Here are a few examples.

  • Advocate adoption of gender-equitable hiring and workplace practices at your organisation;
  • As a manager or business owner, invest in the development of your female workforce;
  • Capitalise on knowledge and insight from a female perspective for balanced decision-making;
  • Join networks for women in supply chain management and contribute your ideas;
  • Become a mentor for more junior female staff and help support their career ambitions;
  • If you’re a woman starting your career, don’t shy away from supply-chain management and logistics. Who knows? One day, you might start your own company.
  • If you are a woman founder/owner working in logistics and supply chain, we would love to hear about your company and how we can help raise your profile – please get in touch.

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