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3 Tips to Surviving (& Thriving) as the Only Female in the Room: Building a Successful Supply Chain Career

In all my years of supply chain consulting, I can honestly say that I’ve never met a vice president of supply chain who intentionally set out to hire a staff full of dudes.  Regardless of intentions, 17 years into my supply chain career journey, the number of skirts has dwindled. I am still surprised at just how often I am the only lady in the room.

Some women move into sales, accounting, marketing, or other more “female friendly” departments.  Some women decide to shift their work to the home front.  Some women stay in support roles.  At a company dinner last year, one of my colleagues got up and gave a really lovely, heartfelt speech about how our team of vice presidents was like an amazing fraternity and he felt as close as brothers to all the guys…oh, and Kristi too. 

However, women are making progress in the industry. Opportunities like last year’s Women in Supply Chain Forum at the 2017 APICS conference are a step in the right direction, but the lack of gender diversity can be intimidating.

The secret to surviving and thriving in the male dominated supply chain industry?  Here are three pieces of advice that I wish I could go back and give my 22-year-old self.

  1. Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn.  No one is going to do it for you.   Harvard Business Review (HBR) just released their findings from interviewing 57 female CEO’s on how they have achieved the top spot and how they mentor other women.  One of the top roadblocks these women identified? Women are more hesitant to self-promote than their male peers.  This was a critical mistake I made in my first years of consulting.  I counted on my managers to recognize my contributions like proud parents.  Now, I keep a folder of my wins and achievements. A few weeks before annual review time, I create a “personal highlights reel” and send it over to my boss to jog their memory on all the great work I’ve done this year for inclusion in my review.     
  2. You cannot be all things to all people.  Harness the power of experts and teams with the inclusion of diverse skill sets and diverse backgrounds.  Think of it as “I get by with a little help from my friends.”  For better or worse (and the opinions out there in popular press go both ways), women are traditionally seen as being more collaborative, more comfortable working in teams and better at sharing the spotlight.  Rather than view those stereotypes as a negative, harness the power of teams to blow your goals out of the water and build a reputation as a cross functional team player.         
  3. To keep your job satisfaction high, know why you do you what you do. Have a clear vision of the impact the work you do makes on the business.  It took fifteen years for me to realize that the “why” is key to my job satisfaction.  Looking back on the roles and work that I enjoyed the most, a link to the mission was the common thread.  Not the paycheck.  Not the title.  I loved knowing that the supply chain work I did to streamline operations improved patient care in a hospital or the inventory optimization work kept a factory open and their 100 workers employed.  The “why” drives me to work harder and be more creative in my solutions.  According to the same HBR article I referenced earlier, I am not unique.  HBR found, “status, power, and reward were not enough to attract women to promotions or specific high-profile roles.”  Nearly all survey respondents noted it was the mission that propelled them. 

I have to admit, it was love at first site when I landed in a supply chain consulting practice 17 years ago, with its perfect mix of complex analytics and strategic imperative.  My career progression since then has been a mixed bag.  I have been blessed to work with and for amazing leaders, who also happened to be women.  However, I’ve also been told I wouldn’t be promoted because women with children shouldn’t travel. 

So bottom line: find supporters, find mentors and be your own biggest advocate.  Lean in, rise up and be the change we want to see in the world.  With deliberate attention to building diversity and inclusion, I know I’ll be writing a piece in ten years’ time about the amazing strides we’ve made as a Supply Chain community. 

Have you made your career in the supply chain? Let us know your best advice in the comments section below. 

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