Promoting women in procurement

By Eva Milko

By Eva Milko

30 August 2016

It was during a recent Procurement Leaders conference that I noticed how women continue to be under-represented within the procurement function. As I scanned the large room filled with delegates, I didn’t even need two hands to count the number of women there. My anxiety was confirmed when a fellow panel member walked in and asked, half-jokingly: “What happened to all the women?”


As someone who works tirelessly to try to inspire progress in the function, the topic of women in procurement is near and dear to my heart. While women make up only 5% of CEO roles in the US, one hopes that the procurement function can provide a meaningful and rewarding career path for the aspiring female CPO. And why not? Procurement continues to transform itself with forward-looking strategies, upgraded talent and ever-closer ties with stakeholders both inside and outside the business. Although it is a somewhat sweeping generalisation, women can bring their natural talent for soft skills to the forefront: emotional intelligence; self-awareness; empathy; humility; and steadfastness are all advantageous for supply chain management.


Rewarding career

When asked to reflect on her career, a seasoned female CPO recently told me that “a career in purchasing is very rewarding” because you are given the opportunity to “positively impact an organisation’s bottom line, which can give you the exposure necessary to advance your career”. She added that procurement was a function that can “breed innovation and change” and be “fun, exciting and challenging”.


While the raw numbers remain fairly dismal, the 2015 Procurement Leaders Salary Survey – which analyses the remuneration data of procurement executives from across industries, geographies and positions – saw a greater representation of women than in the previous year’s poll.


In total, women made up 17% of respondents compared with 13% in 2014. The survey found that although women in junior positions were on par with men in terms of compensation, the same was not true for women in leadership positions, where the glass-ceiling effect was still found to be very prominent. Certain countries are progressive by compensating women fairly, such as the Netherlands, where women can make 5% more than men in procurement.


In more general terms, the research found that women earn 75% of what their male counterparts earn in procurement – representing a two-percentage-point decline on last year. It also found evidence that among the younger population, women’s salaries are almost on par with those of their male colleagues. However, once staff are in their mid-thirties, typically the time when women exit the workforce to raise children and their careers stall, men start to earn significantly more.



The report warned that with procurement talent in danger of shrinking in the future, companies need to maximise the number of women coming into the function, allowing them to integrate back into the workforce post-maternity leave, while compensating them accordingly. Yet there are plenty of positives elsewhere. For the first time, Procurement Leaders had two women CPOs on the stage at the 2015 World Procurement Congress. Cynthia Dautrich, CPO at Kimberly-Clark, chaired the event, while Jane Harley, CPO at Qantas Airlines, spoke at length about the transformation journey she is leading.


The next generation

And that isn’t the end of the good news. A recent poll of 56 universities around the world showed that an average of 37% of students on supply chain courses were female; and three-quarters of those universities reported an increase in enrolment by women over the past five years. Some 71% of those institutions expect enrolment to increase further over the next five years. Encouraging statistics indeed.


Meanwhile, here at Procurement Leaders, we continue to track female CPO appointments across the banking, consumer goods and pharmaceutical industries. We are also monitoring the flow of talented women from entry-level positions all the way up to the top of the corporate ladder and hope to see a steady increase going forward.


The start of a new year is a great time to think about new commitments. This should be the year that everyone takes the necessary steps to improve themselves and make advances in terms of women in procurement. Ensuring you are in the correct state of mind and environment is a good start.


A good source of inspiration for this is Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, who, in her 2013 book, invited us all to “lean in”. In all of my interviews with women CPOs, the idea of “leaning in” was front and centre of their career stories. It is true that far too many women bring modesty and limiting beliefs to the workplace. I invite all women to start taking credit for their work, to let their ambitions and aspirations be known, to practise and step into difficult conversations; get yourself out of your comfort zones and start taking risks. Advance your diplomacy and negotiation skills and find yourself a sponsor. Indeed, sponsorship makes women more likely to aim high, according to a recent McKinsey study, which found that women with sponsors were 8% more likely to ask for both a stretch assignment and a pay increase than women without.


Organisationally, it is also time that we all got a bit uncomfortable with the raw numbers and start to foster open and honest conversations about gender balance in the workplace. From recruitment and hiring practices to giving out plum assignments, there is a need for careful examination of gender bias. Regularly giving women more airtime in meetings is a small but critical step to ensuring that all ideas are considered. Finally, creating a safe space where periodic review of gender balancing strategies takes place, along with a report card on progress, will ensure accountability and, most likely, move the needle in the right direction.


Winning woman: Kylie Towie


At the 2015 Procurement Leaders Awards, Kylie Towie (pictured), CPO at WA Health, picked up the coveted Procurement Leader Award, which has in the past been won by the likes of Cynthia Dautrich, CPO at Kimberly-Clark and Scott Wharton, managing director of operations and technology at Citi Bank. Towie may not run a procurement operation at one of the world’s biggest or most well-known firms but the challenges she faced and overcame and the benefits she delivered are no less impressive. Indeed, they are probably all the more impressive because she was the first procurement chief that the state-run health organisation has ever had.


Joining the organisation in January 2014, Towie established the office of chief procurement officer and developed a strategic procurement programme, covering around half of WA Health’s entire budget. Over the course of 2014 she helped create and implement a procurement delegation schedule, completed procurement compliance audits for high-risk and politically sensitive business units, delivered a procurement education and training programme that incorporated 58 workshops to 800 participants over the course of four months, and developed and implemented a suite of procurement guidelines and templates.


Towie’s colleagues said that through these reforms she has managed to elevate the status of the procurement function from one that was considered mainly administrative to one that is now considered strategic. They added that she had also improved executive visibility of all major procurement projects, issues and risks and praised her “insightful and pragmatic” approach to challenges.


One of the judges at the Procurement Leaders Awards summed Towie’s efforts up nicely when they said that she had demonstrated “strong leadership with a systematic and structured approach in cementing the foundations of procurement”.


Towie is a dedicated and enthusiastic champion of the procurement function, one who is delivering on the promises of the function, is sure to continue driving forward and keep the function moving in that direction too.



Eva Milko is vice president of product development at Procurement Leaders.


This article is a piece of independent writing by a member of Procurement Leaders’ content team.

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