ANALYSIS: Women in logistics

How easy it is for women to carve out a successful logistics career in the GCC region and what can be done to attract more female talent?
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The past half century has seen a global increase in the level of female participation in the workface, with developing countries seeing more than half of women of working age employed.

This increase is also evident in the GCC countries, which all show a steady rise over the past 20 years, with the highest seen in the UAE, followed by Oman and Bahrain.

While the presence of women in supply chain roles has increased across the GCC, it’s fair to say there is a limited female presence in these functions, and especially in the more senior roles.

I see this first hand, every time I attend a conference or exhibition; without exception so far, my sex has been in the minority. At times, I’ve done a rough headcount and come to the conclusion about 10% of attendees at the industry events I attend are women, barring awards ceremonies where nominees’ plus ones tend to redress the balance.

Companies with fewer women are at risk of underachieving, according to The Global Gender Gap 2014 report from the World Economic Forum, which revealed organisations that include more women among the top levels of leadership tend to outperform those that do not.

In addition, research carried out for the Women in Supply Chain 2015 report, authored by the GPCA and Accenture, highlighted several benefits of employing women in supply chain functions.

This research paper reported that women working in supply chain positions in the GCC are perceived as being more loyal to their employers, more reliable in meeting deadlines and less likely to change jobs frequently.

Common sense tells us that the much discussed skills shortage in the field of logistics and supply chain could be addressed if more women were recruited; 50% of a population represents a significant pool of personnel that needs to be tapped into.

Indeed, the aforementioned Women in Supply Chain report asserts that utilising women in supply chain functions could “mitigate the recruitment issues faced by companies in attracting and retaining suitably qualified personnel”.

So how easy is it for women to carve out a rewarding logistics career in the GCC region?

“In this part of the world, it is so difficult for women to work in logistics, especially on-site, due to tradition and the common idea that women are not suitable for hard jobs like logistics.

“To be successful as women in the field, you have to do a double job; the physical hard part of it and at the same time, try to change the stereotype that you can do it as women, not just doing admin work in the office,” states Dalia Ahmed El Khozaimy, sales engineer, storage and handling solutions division, Al-Futtaim Auto & Machinery Co (FAMCO).

She believes that by changing this perception about women’s capabilities, more women will be encouraged to enter the logistics industry.

Recalling a time she feels her abilities were underestimated, she reveals: “Once a customer told me, after I proved myself technically and commercially, ‘It seems after all that you are not just a pretty face’.

“My work changed his idea but it shows how some men in the industry consider women working in the field.”

El Khozaimy adds that in a male dominated industry, women need to show they “won’t quit easily” so they can pave the way for other women, but notes that increasing acceptance of women working in logistics in the region is a “hard, long process” due to the regional culture.

“Being Arabic myself, tradition is an influential factor that can’t be ignored; putting women in hard logistics jobs is not welcomed by the local community, which accepts women working mostly in office jobs. Traditions and how the local community perceives women’s roles in the community can be a huge barrier,” she comments.

There are bodies working to remove such barriers and support women from all backgrounds, with Women In Logistics and Transport Middle East (WILATME), which is supported by The Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT), being one such organisation.

Sebnem Sen, head of DMCC Tradeflow, is very active within WILATME and was the first female CILT UAE board member. She says women in the logistics and supply chain industry here face challenges in finding their way in a male dominated sector.

“Similar to other sectors, very few women are given the chance to work their way to the top positions. It is a fact that overall in the GCC, the employment ratio of women has been less compared to men in the supply chain and logistics industry,” she remarks.

Sen attributes this partly to a perception of women filling the role of homemaker, explaining that historically it was expected women in the region would “attend to their household duties and support their male counterparts from a distance”.

She continues: “Even if some have shown the courage to step forward to the business life, they have been discriminated [against] for their ‘so called’ lack of strength to do some certain jobs; the supply chain and logistics sector has been one big example.

“This demotivation has continued on women and led to missed career opportunities as well as missed opportunities in job development.”

However, Sen notes that the UAE in particular has forged a path to help women enter the workplace, citing an example last year of attitude progression.

She says: “With the support of the UAE Government, women have been encouraged to participate in the evolution and growth of the country’s economy in the supply chain and logistics industry as well as in other industries.”

“A solid example is the opening of DP World’s Jebel Ali Container Terminal 3 in 2014; the demonstration of a remotely controlled quay crane during His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai’s, visit to the port was given by a new woman crane operator and it was mentioned that 30% of the new quay crane operators recruited are Emiratis, and of those, a third are women.

“The figure is even higher for RMG operators, with 70% of those recruited [being] Emiratis and 70% of that group being Emirati women.”

Sen states that the acceptance of women working in logistics regionally increases with the support of government, multinational companies and non-profit organisations together, adding that by promoting women through the ranks it acts as a motivator to fellow women, as well as men, “to create more opportunities for women and female students in the industry”.

“These organisations should be supported in their efforts to hold the region’s women’s hand in developing individual career paths into the senior logistics roles,” she asserts.

Mareike Walter-Paschkowski, regional executive search consultant, Logistics Executive Group, agrees that women breaking into a male dominated industry is something of a work in progress.

“I think women are accepted in the logistics industry here but there is still a long way to go, especially when it comes to some of the technically demanding positions, which are still seen more for male staff, such as project logistics or heavy lift,” she shares.

Walter-Paschkowsi notes that part of the reason behind this could be women lacking the education required and interest in logistics for these types of roles, though reveals she has encountered a scenario where a company decided against a female candidate because it did not seem “the right cultural fit” for a woman to lead a project team of men.

To attract and develop female talent for supply chain roles, she thinks more logistics information should be provided through schools and universities, in addition to more female speakers at logistics events and more special events aimed at women.

“It would also make sense to share more success stories about women in the GCC logistics industry and for logistics companies to think about providing customised training or executive coaching to further support and empower female staff,” she reasons.

One company I spoke to that is putting initiatives like this into action is DHL, the world’s biggest logistics company.

Anu Daga, UAE HR manager, DHL, says the logistics industry needs a more diverse workforce and DHL endeavours to change “poor perceptions about career opportunities for women”.

It does this through its efforts as lead sponsor of the Women in Logistics UAE, a non-profit organisation promoting, educating and encouraging women to see opportunities in logistics, as well as its initiatives like Top Women’s Program, which develops women for leadership roles, and its DHL Women’s Network, which encourages sharing success stories and learning opportunities.

“It is important there is a focus on hiring women in positions where they have visibility to inspire and encourage other women into the industry and these stories are shared with the next generation of employees,” she explains.

She agrees with El Khozaimy’s thoughts that the logistics industry is often perceived as not being a conducive environment for women, citing the example that transportation as a sector offers more ‘masculine’ roles in general and is a 24/7 business – alluding to the fact many working women are also juggling childcare, meaning part-time work or flexible hours can be appealing.

However Daga, who is a WILATME board member, notes perceptions have changed over time, thanks to women successfully taking on leadership and operational roles.

“The industry needs to continue to innovate its workplace practices, ensuring that the work environment, polices on work life balance and career opportunities are designed to suit the growing female workforce,” she remarks.

While logistics is indeed male dominated, Daga says more women are participating than ever before.

“This industry is a key contributor to the economy of countries, so for women in the Middle East participation in the labour force makes clear economic sense,” she comments, adding: “It’s an industry that is growing rapidly and with women making up a sizeable proportion of the working population, the opportunities cannot be ignored.

“There has been conscious effort on development programmes on the part of organisations to drive this change in perception, supported by more generous policies on maternity, flexible working conditions, etc.”

She reveals DHL in the UAE employs 30% more women than two years ago, including women in senior management roles and in operations, commercial and logistics roles rather than those customer service and HR positions typically filled by women.

A problem discussed frequently in logistics circles is the issue of a job in this industry not being the first choice among young people when they are thinking about starting a career, but this applies to both sexes.

Addressing perceptions in the younger generation that the logistics industry offers little more than moving and lifting roles is an ongoing challenge. Daga believes, however, that the sheer scope of different opportunities within the industry is helping to make logistics more of an attractive career proposition for women.

“Increasingly women are changing the gender stereotypes and taking up positions in the logistics and transport fields, offering additional perspectives and skills to complement their male counterparts,” she comments.

Regional initiatives, qualifications and events taking place in recent years indicate the logistics industry as a whole is trying to entice more people, some of whom will be women, and creating a more diverse workforce can only be a positive thing.

To go even further though, far more women need to be hired in visible, prominent positions, to continue changing traditional attitudes and also inspire other women to want to work in logistics.

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