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Verda Blythe

Grainger Center Leads in Bringing Women into Supply Chain Industry

by Staff Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Many business disciplines want to increase gender diversity, but the supply chain management profession has a particularly large challenge. The Grainger Center for Supply Chain Management at the Wisconsin School of Business is leading the charge to address the issue.

According to a 2013 SCM World survey of 57 universities, women make up only 37 percent of students in MBA and BBA (Bachelor of Business Administration) supply chain programs. A separate study by SCM World found that women hold fewer than five percent of chief supply chain officer (CSCO) positions in Fortune 500 companies.

Leaders in the industry are taking notice. Grainger Center Director Verda Blythe has seen increased interest in the issue. Blythe spoke earlier this year about women in supply chain at SCM World Live, a national conference of top researchers and executives in supply chain. She was also part of a recent webinar on the same topic sponsored by a global supply chain technology company. Blythe’s platform for both events focused on gender disparity in the industry.

Students in supply chain management class

“How can companies get more women into this profession and ultimately into the executive levels?” Blythe says. “How do we, as a collective group of universities, recruit young women into this field?”

There’s a reason Blythe has been in the national spotlight for this issue - the Grainger Center for Supply Chain Management at the Wisconsin School of Business is recognized as a leader in bringing women to the profession. In the 2013-14 academic year, 48 percent of the 119 students enrolled in supply chain programs (both master’s and undergraduate) were women.

“It’s an outstanding number compared with competitor programs, and the numbers continue to grow,” Blythe says. “We have had great success with bringing women to this discipline.”

What makes Wisconsin unique is how the Grainger Center positions supply chain within the School. 

“How are we doing things differently at Wisconsin?” Blythe says. “It’s our positioning. We take a cross-functional, strategic approach to the discipline, with an emphasis on the marketing, or demand, side of business. Because the majority of undergraduate women in the business school are marketing majors, we can tell the supply chain story to a large target audience.”

Supply chain management is not an independent major at the Wisconsin School of Business, but a specialization open to all majors, although the majority of undergraduate supply chain students are marketing and operations majors.

“Because our program is cross-functional across operations and marketing, we visit introductory courses in each department,” says Angie Bong, assistant director of the Grainger Center. “We’ll also visit the fundamentals of supply chain management course, because if students are enrolling in that course they have indicated some kind of interest.”

Verda Blythe

The Center also sponsors a panel discussion and workshop every semester for business students called “From A to Z: Careers in Supply Chain Management,” which is part of the Compass program for undergraduates.  The event gives students the opportunity to network with supply chain professionals and alumni, as well as explore various career options.

Erin Flynn, who graduated from the undergraduate supply chain program in May, first heard about the program through a friend and was sold after attending a “From A to Z” meeting. She now works as a merchandise analyst for Kohl’s corporate office.

“I work alongside a variety of people from a number of backgrounds,” Flynn says. “As a woman working in the corporate world I feel that my BBA degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison truly sets me apart and that the skills I gained in the specialization of supply chain management have allowed me to really contribute in my role as soon as I started.”

Jennifer Schultz (MBA ’08) loves the collaboration in the supply chain profession.

“I've always been interested in understanding how things and people work. Supply chain gives you an opportunity to work across all functions, and to work both strategically and at execution,” she says. “I enjoy the challenge of working with so many personality types.”

Schultz, a processes, tools, and training manager at Illinois Tool Works, says the network she built early in her career have helped her avoid any potential barriers as a young woman in the industry.

“I've had some excellent mentors, both male and female, who have definitely helped pave the way,” Schultz says.

Although Wisconsin is leading the way by developing women for early career positions in supply chain management, senior leadership positions in the industry have taken longer to change. Much of the current conversations in the industry focus on how to provide women with an environment and a career path that will help them advance.

Much of the change must come from industry leaders, according to Blythe. She emphasized the value of mentorship and coaching for young women and the importance of women taking broader roles within organization, as well as providing flexibility at different life stages to encourage women to continue on the path to executive roles.

BBA students interested in learning more about specializing in supply chain management should attend the Grainger Center’s “From A to Z: Careers in Supply Chain Management” seminar on September 24 from 5:30-7:00 p.m. in 4151 Grainger Hall.