Politics of Poverty

The best man for the job might be a woman

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Olga Rosine Adou is the president of COOPASA, a cocoa cooperative in Agboville, Ivory Coast. She says international companies that buy cocoa from the women she represents could do more to improve their livelihoods. Photo: Peter DiCampo / Oxfam America

Could more women in supply chain management be better for companies and for poor people?

This post is co-authored by Gawain Kripke and Irit Tamir.

Oxfam works to make global supply chains more pro-poor. That’s a lot of the point of our Behind the Brands effort, a major effort to push the biggest global food companies to improve social, development, and environmental impacts of their procurement and supply chains. We have also been encouraging companies to consider the impacts of climate change on their supply chains and to the producers on which they rely.

We’ve seen some real progress in recent years. And yet, the positive impact is still very under realized.

Could it be that it’s because there are too few women involved at high levels of supply chain management?

In a very interesting and quite surprising investigation by SCM World (think “supply chain management” professionals), women make up less than 7% of supply chain management executives among Fortune 500 companies. SCM World did a painstaking job of hand counting the executives in 320 companies. In fairness, seven percent is more than the percentage of women CEOs, but it’s still pretty dang small.

So might argue, “Maybe women just aren’t good at the stressful and complicated business of supply chain management.” Well, no actually.

SCM World did an online poll of supply chain management participants and found large majorities of executives involved in corporate supply chain management think women bring different skills to the job and that these skills are advantageous for the job. Both women and men feel this way. [Note, of course, that online polling is notoriously unreliable but SCM World’s poll was among their membership base.]

So what are these skills that women bring to supply chain management? According to the poll, women: 1) are better at multi-tasking, 2) exhibit less risky and “macho” behavior, and 3) engage in more teamwork and relationship-building. All of these are important to developing and maintaining good supply chains.

But could more women and their innate skills also make corporate supply chains more pro-poor and help align the interests of the biggest companies with the aspirations of the poorest people?

Women are large portions of—if  not the majority of—workers in many corporate supply chains, especially for agriculture. Having more women in supply chain management could mean that women’s perspectives are more likely to be taken into account when companies make purchases from women farmers or dealing with plantations that have women workers. Presumably women managing supply chains, particularly in various cultural contexts, would have a much better understanding of how to train women and when to do it, and how to tackle the obstacles they face.

For example, when Oxfam conducted research with women farmers in cocoa supply chains in West Africa last year, many of the women said that they don’t attend agricultural trainings to increase and improve their cocoa yield. The trainings offered didn’t take into account women’s responsibilities of childcare, housework, and food prep, and more perhaps importantly, they didn’t feel comfortable being trained by men.

Maybe a woman in charge would have figured this out.

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