A Balancing Act
Sensitizing male colleagues, providing work flexibility and security will go a long way in creating a perfect work environment for women to unleash their full potential, says Amit Singh, Head-Talent Management, DHL Lemuir Logistics Pvt. Ltd.
Across industries, women are continually embracing traditionally accepted male dominated roles. Women in financial services, media and FMCG have shattered the proverbial glass ceiling to take up top posts and have proven their capability time and again. The picture is changing in other industries as well. A recent Times of India article reported that women are beginning to undertake key responsibilities for many global beverage brands in the Indian market. However, it is still widely recognized that women are under-represented in most industries and this gap becomes even more evident as we move up the hierarchy.
The logistics industry has served as a traditional bastion for males. This comes as a surprise since the industry is always in need of competencies that are usually associated with women—flexibility, intuition and service orientation. Considering the perfect match, the logistics sector offers a great opportunity to women not only to start a career, but also rise to the highest levels.
Breaking The Glass Ceiling
Let’s take the example of Shabana Khan, Director, Air Freight at DHL Lemuir Logistics, India, who is a member of the national management board. She joined the company as a trainee learning day-to-day operations. There were relatively few women in the industry those days and very few who would venture to airports to manage cargo and carriers. Once she was provided with the platform, she strove to deliver her best and was soon promoted as Assistant Manager, Air Exports. After a series of promotions that exposed her to operations, sales and customer service, she took up the role of Regional Manager for Western India, followed by National Operations Manager and Director, Air Freight. In her current job, she heads the largest air freight function within India and is a known name in the industry.
The question is how we can create more Shabana Khans in a male-dominated industry. The industry can play a huge role in attracting, nurturing and promoting female talent. Based on anecdotal evidence, most female university pass outs don’t see the logistics and supply chain fields as a career opportunity. Pradnya Bhandare and Aarti Mishra are currently part of a Logistics Trainee Program within DHL Lemuir Logistics where the trainees are attached to various functions, including gateways and warehouses. “As part of my MBA, I studied a module on supply chain management, but I never thought of the industry as a career opportunity until my friends encouraged me to apply based on a few DHL posters at my campus”, states Pradnya.
Trainees like Aarti and Pradnya are unaware of the huge role they play in shattering some of the pre-conceived notions that exist in our workplaces. “When we started our stint at the airport which is predominantly male, it was a two-way adjustment process for us as well as the existing staff”, notes Aarti. “In the beginning, the employees were concerned about our security and encouraged us to leave early. Women at the airport usually don’t hand out documents to transporters etc. However, a little bit of initiative from our side helped us to allay our colleagues’ fears and get involved in work that was usually done by men,” adds Pradnya.
Planning For Future Growth
While companies can use existing trainee programs to recruit and develop female leaders, an intervention at an earlier stage may reap more long-term benefits. Most students in India start thinking about their careers during secondary school. Workshops and site visits for such young students, especially girls, can open up the industry to them and help build a brand for companies.
Attracting women to the industry is just half the battle won. The key challenge for the supply chain industry is to address root causes that inhibit the growth of female talent within the industry. Unless the current rules of the game are altered, women’s participation in leadership roles within the industry will remain low.
Women play the central role in a family and invariably spend more time running families as compared to men. This “double burden” is further exacerbated by the lack of social facilities like day care centres etc. in India. Assuming the above to be inherent to our social model, the question arises of how compatible are our corporate models. Popular stories of supply chain leaders usually involve dedicated careers without any breaks, geographical mobility and unwavering availability. So powerful are such stories that we invariably expect our leaders to emulate the same. This expectation is incompatible with the “double burden” carried by women and invariably creates the glass ceiling that prevents the rise of women leaders.
As long as our industry processes related to selection, performance and promotion are linked to such expectations, women will find it difficult to take up management roles. Shabana feels that “Balancing work and family is one of the biggest challenges for working women. The travel and mobility requirements of a managerial role can clash with personal commitments. However, the adoption of flexible work policies and the use of technology can reduce the burden. For example, virtual conferencing will not only save unnecessary travel, but also reduce costs for the company.”
Having spent a number of years in the industry, Shabana has seen an increase in the number of women at the middle management level and feels that its time to support these women in order to replicate their numbers in the boardrooms across the logistics industry. “Women naturally hesitate to position themselves even though they may perform very well. This may lead to lesser visibility for them in the eyes of key decision makers”, adds Shabana. Therefore, the industry can benefit from mentorship programs and forming women employee networks. Not only do such initiatives bring out female role models, but they also coach women employees to display their skills and perform more assertively, an area where men are generally more comfortable.
To support women employees in this area, DHL Lemuir Logistics has rolled out a specific workshop titled ‘Caste as Women’. Bosky Arora, Head Learning and Development at DHL discloses that “the workshop supports women to connect with female awareness and its struggle against patriarchy within the Indian corporate scenario. The workshop helps to enhance self esteem and inculcates a go-getter attitude in our female employees.”
Career breaks for maternity or other reasons should not be seen as a burden, but as an opportunity to provide stretch assignments to other high potentials. Support before, during and after these breaks is critical to ensure smooth reintegration. The key is not to limit such initiatives to women alone as this helps to get overall acceptance and distribution of benefits.
One of the biggest challenges that women face while entering a predominantly male workplace is adjustment to language, customs, dress and humor. Jokes and language appropriate in a typically male setting may be offensive to women. Training on sensitizing employees to these issues can help in opening up a subject that is not usually discussed. “Small initiatives like ensuring proper washrooms for women and company transport to far-out or secluded areas can go a long way in convincing women to see the industry as a viable career option,” add Aarti and Pradnya.
Making the industry more women-friendly is probably the best talent management strategy as it will open it up to the hitherto untapped talent pool of over 50 percent of our population. Logistics and supply chain companies that achieve this will lead the rest in innovation, productivity and profitability.