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​Supply chain management for women: Q&A with Accenture’s Courtney Spitz

Supply chain innovations like robotics and automation can play to women’s strengths, but SCM’s image needs a makeover first.

Why don’t more women hold senior leadership positions in supply chain management (SCM)?

I think there are several reasons. One obvious challenge is the lack of a pipeline in the sector, which probably results from the supply chain’s historical biases and need for an image transformation. To some, this work often seems more “masculine,” and educational curriculums, recruiting practices, management training programs and corporate gender roles can reinforce that stereotype. People mistakenly see it primarily as a physical job involving warehouses and trucks, when SCM actually plays an important strategic role that reaches across functions and regions and requires skillsets that align with female strengths.

In fact, recent research suggests that Fortune 500 companies with more female board directors achieved significantly higher financial performance compared to firms with the lowest number of women in these positions. And in fact, this correlation holds for supply chain leadership: while about 20% of supply chain leaders are females in director-level or higher positions on average, among the top 25 Fortune 500, this proportion rises to 25%.

What about the ways that companies traditionally hire and promote within this function?

SCM departments tend to promote leaders from within, starting on the ground floor of distribution centers (DCs) or manufacturing plants. Because of the sector’s perceived focus on physical labor, women might decide against applying for such jobs on their own, or their bosses could pass over them in favor of men. The perceived “lug” factor in some supply chain-related jobs and the requirement for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) expertise in other positions that involve engineering, for example, could limit female participation. Attracting more females to STEM educational paths and careers can resolve these shortages over the long term, but that could take decades.

To attract more women now, companies are experimenting with different promotional paths. For example, functions such as merchandising and demand planning already have more women in leadership roles than SCM does. Given the transferability of many of these skills, it makes sense to make it worthwhile for these women to “cross the aisle” to supply chain leadership.

Most SCM organizations have narrow recruiting funnels focused on engineering and operations degrees and experience—disciplines that tend to skew male. One consequence of this is that companies seeking greater diversity are vying for a small pool of women, making the ability to plot a viable and attractive career path doubly important. On the plus side, the current digital transformation is changing supply chain dynamics by placing a higher value on analytics, process and collaboration, which tends to open up larger pools of female candidates for consideration. The digital revolution is also making the links and integration moves between the supply chain and other functions like sales, marketing and finance stronger, which will probably boost the number of women filling these roles in SCM in the future.

Beyond these impediments, I think the rigid ways of working that some companies follow also pose a problem. They need to bake in more flexibility and support structure for things like opt-out scenarios that can make home life and work life easier to integrate, for example. Some firms also make uninformed assumptions that women might not want an opportunity because it involves more travel, a relocation or other disruptions. Instead, they need to recognize potential in women, and encourage and support them in applying for the role.

What has your company done to increase the presence of women leaders in its supply chain?

Accenture’s group chief executive for North America, Julie Sweet, has embarked on a strong program to make SCM more diverse, grooming women successors, publishing diversity statistics and targeting women during recruiting. And she’s launched all of these initiatives as part of a new leadership strategy that mandates change.

Additionally, the company has begun a program to hire veterans—women who are former junior military officers specialized in the supply chain and logistics—to seed our SCM team with differentiated skills and leadership talent. Hiring veterans with a wealth of experience, especially those with practical "boots on the ground" global knowledge, has been a tremendous source of talent and leadership that has driven a mindset sea change within our SCM team. While moving clothes and products can be hard and intellectually challenging, it is by no means a man’s job exclusively. These women successfully moved those goods as well as bullets, food and supplies in a much more complex—and often dangerous—environment that utilized sea, land, rail, and air as necessary.

You earlier mentioned the need to rebrand SCM: how do you do that?

Companies can attract new female talent to the discipline by making people aware of the supply chain’s central role in business success and the opportunities that exist within the industry. The amount of innovative technology, robotics and analytics is significant and continues to grow, but the “legacy” environment persists as the overriding perception of supply chain management. As long as it’s viewed as beating up on suppliers and loading and unloading trucks, qualified women won’t see SCM as an exciting career choice. And I suspect that qualitied women with an engineering background have plenty of competing opportunities to consider! That’s why companies should work to change the supply chain’s image to one that involves intelligent automation and robotics instead of physical labor; that has more to do with multitasking and strategy in the place of rote transactions; that highlights value delivery instead of simply executing procedures all the time. The best way to make these changes starts at the top, with a CEO who’s unafraid to drive change.

What can women do who are interested in a supply chain career?

Individually, women need to know what they want, verbalize it and then go after it relentlessly. Many women only apply for jobs that they feel are a 100 percent match with their current capabilities. Men, on the other hand, will often go after positions even when they meet no more than 60 percent of the requirements. Similarly, men tend to receive promotions more often than women are simply because they speak up and ask for them. Women need to take responsibility for themselves and for their own careers. They should apply for jobs with confidence, even when they don’t have 100 percent of the requirements, and speak up and ask for promotions.