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Analysis: Shattering the Glass

Why is the GCC failing to employ more women in supply chain leadership positions?

Closing the gender gap in the region’s labour market will require increased collaboration between governments and the private sector.
Closing the gender gap in the region’s labour market will require increased collaboration between governments and the private sector.

A recent joint study between the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association (GPCA) and global management consulting firm Accenture has found that female professionals account for about one third of the staff in supply chain functions in some petrochemical and chemical firms in the GCC.

Yet few are employed in senior or leadership positions, with the majority of female presence concentrated in one particular area of the downstream supply chain, with little or no presence in a number of others. The study, entitled ‘GCC Women in Supply Chain’, surveyed 27 organisations across the GCC, accounting for over 80% of GPCA’s member companies.

Despite a steady increase in female employment rates over the last two decades, women’s representation in supply chain jobs is relatively low compared to that in developed countries.

At a country level the UAE and Kuwait appear to be more open to hiring females in supply chain jobs, while Bahrain and Oman show lower perception as to the ability to employ women in downstream logistics.

According to the survey, from 1990 to 2013 the number of women of working age employed in all the GCC countries increased, with UAE showing the highest increase in female participation (of 22 percentage points), followed by Oman (12 p.p.) and Bahrain (11 p.p.). Other countries’ growth was less striking, with Saudi Arabia recording an increase of just 6 p.p. for the same period.

Although on face value these figures seem to suggest that countries such as Qatar and the UAE now have female labour participation levels that are on a par with developed countries and well above those of other Arab countries, the report notes that a closer analysis of the data shows that this is far from the case.

“For countries such as Qatar and the UAE, their high figures are to a large degree due to those countries’ strategy of attracting a large foreign labour force – including female workers, which now comprise the majority of the local population,” the authors of the report said.

Taking this into account allows for a more consistent picture of the level of female participation in the GCC workforce, namely that, while it has increased over the last two decades, it is still substantially below that of developed countries. One GCC member state which particularly stands out is unsurprisingly Saudi Arabia, which according to a recent report by AT Kearney, has one of the lowest female labour participation ratios in the region alongside Oman at less than 30%.

Experts believe that closing the gender gap in the region’s labour market will require increased collaboration between governments and the private sector.

“This will require a series of proactive measures and initiatives to drive up the levels of female participation in the workforce, as has been the case in developed countries. Such countries have found it necessary to implement specific programmes of work to drive changes to female workforce participation, typically employing a “carrot and stick” approach, through a combination of incentives combined with legislative changes or penalties,” analysts said.

Recent changes to Saudi Arabia’s economic strategy have encouraged investment in creating more job opportunities for females across a number of sectors. In a major boost to women’s education and employment, IT giant Wipro, along with Saudi Aramco and Princess Nora University (PNU), inaugurated in May what is the Kingdom’s first all ‘Women’s Business Park’ (WBP), which is expected to create nearly 21,000 jobs by 2025. The WBP, a joint-venture of PNU and Wipro Arabia, has been supported by Saudi Aramco as strategic advisor and anchor of the initiative.

Customer service within petrochemical supply chain has been identified as the area with the greatest potential for increasing the employment levels of women in the short to medium term. It also employ the highest proportion of females and has the highest number of women in leadership positions. Furthermore, according to those who took part in the survey, customer service is seen as an area for which women in the Arabian Gulf already have the skillset required for operational as well as leadership positions, such as communications skills, while its office-based nature and the ability to manage face-to-face interaction with males addresses many of the cultural and social issues associated with female participation in the regional workforce.

On the other hand, certain supply chain functions such as demand planning, supplier relationship management, purchasing, sourcing, materials management and others, typically require a greater level of interaction with males, as well as specialist supply chain skills, which represent social challenges to increasing female participation in these areas. Positions in warehousing, supply chain strategy and performance management are generally seen as the most difficult to be filled by females.

“For supply chain strategy and performance management, this is due to the highly skilled nature of these roles,” the report said.

“These require deep supply chain skills and there are issues with women getting access to the required higher education such as supply chain-focused or relevant degrees, and hence the experience to be able to undertake these roles. These roles are typically filled by more senior and experienced supply chain professionals. The challenges around women gaining this experience and academic qualification gives rise to the absence of female participation in these roles in GCC petrochemical and chemical companies,” it added.

One striking outcome of the report was the acute absence of women in leadership positions in the surveyed companies. Many believed this was due to the comparatively low numbers of women with enough experience to qualify them for leadership roles within the supply chain function — the one exception being customer service.

“This is a reflection of the length of time women have been working in this function, allowing them to gain the experience needed to qualify them for the leadership roles,” the survey suggests.

According to the majority of respondents, once employed, women tend to have much lower turnover rates than their male counterparts and are likely to perform as well, if not better. This is a significant advantage particularly in the GCC, where personnel retention remains a great challenge to most employers and competition for qualified professionals is severe.

“Given the significant cost of recruiting staff, and the associated disruption when skilled labour leaves the company, this lower turnover rate for female staff provides clear financial benefits for those companies with higher levels of female staff in their supply chain functions,” says the report.

Females are also seen as being more responsive to requests and having better attention to detail. As a result, companies which have higher proportion of women in their supply chain workforce are believed to enjoy a direct positive impact on their operational efficiency, profitability and overall business performance.

However, there are a series of obstacles to including more women in the supply chain of petrochemical and chemical organisations. These include the lack of female friendly engineering or supply chain courses in women’s home countries, which limits their chances of obtaining the right qualification and subsequently their ability to secure a job in the largely male-dominated chemical logistics sector.

“This lack of access to local supply chain-focused training, degree courses and certification in certain countries, and the requirement therefore to travel abroad to gain this, places females at a significant disadvantage to males in being able to pursue careers in supply chain due to the social challenges around females attending training in other countries,” the report said.

It concludes by making a number of recommendations for initiatives that employers need to consider if they wish to attract more female talent to supply chain jobs. These include addressing social and cultural challenges preventing women from entering the workforce, ensuring the workplace is female friendly and that female harassment is not tolerated under any circumstances. A significant step forward would be to create equal opportunities for both men and women to progress in their careers, as well as address the challenges women face in commuting to and from the workplace. Another area where females’ needs are systematically being neglected is healthcare and child support. At a time when companies are in dire need for qualified personnel — male or female — the timely resolution of these issues could prove key in closing the gap, leading to a more competitive, more diverse and ultimately more productive industry.


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