Seeking to close the gender equality gap in shipping and logistics

Features Logistics Uncategorized

   Passionate or emotional? Assertive or overbearing? Each of these pairs of terms represent two sides of the same semantic coin. Unfortunately, however, the way in which people are labelled in the workplace still too often has more to do with their gender than the quality of their character.
   The shipping and logistics industry is unique in many ways, but it is similar to many in that women are not given the same advancement opportunities as men. Workforce composition and pay inequality statistics make this fact perfectly obvious.
   But it’s in the stories of industry veterans that some of the details behind those statistics start to emerge. Company cultures that don’t foster career development for women. A lack of women in leadership positions to act as role models. Systemic, albeit often subconscious, prejudices against women.
   All those factors, and more, lead to situations where ambitious women are characterized as emotional and overbearing, rather than passionate and assertive, as their male colleagues might be seen in similar circumstances.
   In recent conversations American Shipper had with a number of female veteran executives either currently or formerly involved in shipping and logistics, a number of patterns emerged.
   First, that nearly all had experienced some degree of harassment, bias, or career obstacle that male counterparts were unlikely to have experienced. Second, that the seeds for the uneven ratio of male to female leaders in the industry were sown long ago, and can be traced at least in part to gender-based divisions of labor. And third, that hiring cycles are often based on leaders gravitating to people who look and sound them like, perpetuating the vacuum of female leaders.
   All the conversations focused intently on what can be done to rectify the situation as well, and most of the discussions led directly to one point: company culture. Companies that foster respect up and down their ranks are more likely to provide opportunities for women to thrive and advance from the time they enter the company to the time they leave.
   Statistics bear out that this is no anecdotal phenomenon. According to a study on pay in the logistics industry conducted by Logistics Management in April 2017, 82 percent of respondents were male, and the average male respondent made 46 percent more in salary than his female counterpart. It should be noted that the women American Shipper spoke with for this article are not necessarily representative of the industry at large. As with any random group of executives, no matter the gender, they tilt toward the more ambitious and intelligent side of the employee spectrum. In other words, it’s fair to consider them the crème of the crop, not the rank and file. That being said, their accounts of the underlying sexism in shipping and logistics are consistent with those now being shared from all across the industry, both privately and on the record.

A Sore Thumb. Industry conferences and events may be the most visible manifestation of the gender disparity in shipping and logistics, often even taking those within the industry by surprise.
   “I think one of the things that sticks out to me is when I would go to a big industry event, and someone I didn’t recognize would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, you’re Holly from Lumber Liquidators,’” said Holly Pearce, former director of international logistics at Lumber Liquidators and currently a program manager for the Virginia Economic Development Partnership’s VALET export initiative. “To me, he was another white guy in a suit, but to him, I was the one who stuck out like a sore thumb.”
   “I didn’t notice it until I went to a logistics-specific conference,” said Virginia Thompson, former senior director of global transportation and trade compliance at Crate and Barrel and currently vice president of product management at the global trade management software company Integration Point. “All the reps I worked with at carriers were male, but it’s not something I thought about in one-on-one situations. Having gone to trade compliance conferences (which tend to be more evenly split between men and women), and then to shipping conferences, you’re struck by how heavily male they are.”

“I didn’t notice it until I went to a
logistics-specific conference…Having
gone to trade compliance conferences,
and then to shipping conferences,
you’re struck by how
heavily male they are.”
Virginia Thompson,
vice president
of product
Integration Point

   So how did the logistics industry get to where it is? There are a host of theories, but the predominant one is that the dividing lines were set in motion decades ago, split along what were then traditional divisions of labor.
   New male entrants into the industry were sent to the docks, to warehouses, and behind the wheel. New female employees were sent to the offices to do paperwork. Positions of leadership were occupied by men who—intentionally or otherwise— perpetuated those roles. Men would gradually grow their responsibilities or graduate into positions of greater significance as their careers progressed until they themselves were leaders. Women dutifully handled administrative roles, but found themselves bumping into the proverbial glass ceiling as soon as they looked to grow within an organization.
   “I fell into the industry out of college,” said Maryanna Kersten, senior manager of international logistics at Del Monte Foods, whose previous roles include stints at Hewlett-Packard and APL. “I’ve had the purview of seeing the evolution of the industry. My story is not uncommon. A lot of people fell into it. I happened to be a liberal arts major and got hired by a shipping company. I needed a job, and history majors weren’t all that in demand.”
   Kersten started at a clerical level at APL, “which is where predominantly women were being hired,” she said. After four years, she yearned to move to the pricing side, but was discouraged from doing so. Instead, the carrier had a sales position in mind for her. By Kersten’s recollection, there were maybe one or two other women sales reps in the San Francisco area at the time.
   “One of the offices we visited, the customer wouldn’t shake my hand,” she said. “But by and large, I had positive experiences. In sales over more than 10 years, there was one example of something that extreme. But in general, does the industry have a glass ceiling? Yes.”

Cultural Legacy. Kersten said the challenges women faced were as much about in-built patterns of employee development as anything else.
   “There is a double standard for women,” she said. “It feels like a trite thing to say, but there is a different level of scrutiny. I’ve felt it throughout my career. You’re accused of being too tough, and the ‘b’ word. A feeling that you’re never getting it quite right. With men, you’re more likely to hear, ‘He’s just like that. That’s his style. He’s a character.’”
   Another factor is the mentor and succession issue. People in leadership positions often gravitate toward people who look and act like they do when eyeing a potential deputy or successor.
   “Logistics still tends to be male-dominated, and it takes a long time to build that runway if you have that legacy of how things have evolved,” Kersten said. “If you have men in leadership, there’s a human tendency to promote people like you, who talk and think the way you do. I think it is more of an unconscious thing. But while you get it and understand that, is that really okay and acceptable?
   “Maybe we can be self-reflective and look at our standards, that these things didn’t happen in a vacuum,” she said. “People behaving badly and people being silent, people on the periphery just accepting it as a norm. Maybe it’s about, what does the logistics world want to be? Does it want to embrace more diversity in its leadership, [to] do things to actively promote women?”
   Inna Kuznetsova, president and chief operating officer at INTTRA, said that a business’ culture is what sets the tone for ensuring that women have equal access to opportunities.
   “People sometimes forget about the cultural part, which doesn’t manifest in physical abuse, but rather being ignored, or not having resources, or no access to role models,” she said. “We all model our behavior based on role models.” Kuznetsova’s career began in the then-Soviet Union, an experience that gave her a different perspective on how men and women fit into a workforce.
   “In the Soviet Union, all women worked,” she said. “While there was some discrimination, there was no sense that women weren’t good enough for certain jobs. So I didn’t have that those negative messages.”
   Kuznetsova, who held executive positions at IBM and CEVA Logistics before coming to INTTRA, said she focuses on the positive image that being a leader can have on other women.
   “I was the first ever woman hired as head of the sales function [at CEVA],” she said. “That made a difference. I became a beacon in other parts of company. It made me very aware of the need to have role models.”
   She said one key starting point in the discussion is dealing with “assumptions” made by those in leadership roles based on a limited frame of reference.
   “I know a pregnant woman who was denied a promotion because her manager assumed her head would be in other places,” she said. “So there needs to be a culture in terms of providing support. Not assuming that most women need flexible hours, because everyone is an individual. Not allowing anyone to interrupt, or steal ideas, or excessively explain things. In many cases, bosses set different criteria levels for men and women. But it all starts with assumptions.”

Aggressive Adaptation. For Pearce, it’s the micro-aggressions and the way women have to work around them that start to add up to a more systemic or cultural issue.
   “I’ve definitely had to modify my speaking cadence, my syntax, my word choice,” she said. “Instead of, ‘We need to do ABC,’ I’ve had to change it to, ‘If you think we need to do this, why don’t we do A and B?’ In meetings, there have been so many times I’d have people talk over me. Or explain back to me what I just said. Or people telling me to calm down.
   “If a guy was getting passionate, you wouldn’t tell them to take a breath. For males, it’s considered assertive. For women, they call it bitchy. But stuff needs to get done. We’re in supply chain.”
   Pearce noted how much can change when someone at the top of an organization sets a different tone. At Lumber Liquidators, Pearce said initially she “toiled in obscurity” behind her boss in the international transportation department.
   “He was a wink and a handshake, old-school guy,” she said. “Meanwhile, I did all the work behind the scenes.”
   When Pearce got a new boss, also a man, he said, “We need to take the invisible wrap off you, so everyone knows what you’re capable of.”
   Indeed, the vagaries of success for women—as with anyone—are often tied to the luck of the draw. Being hired by a progressive company, having an immediate superior who values intellect and hard work regardless of gender, or sometimes simply being in the right place at the right time can make all the difference.
   But as many have pointed out, it’s on companies and existing leadership to ensure that women are in the right place and prepared to take advantage of those opportunities.
   “I think getting more women in logistics is about talking to them in high school and college, and letting them know what’s out there,” said Carolyn Glynn, senior manager of international freight at Igloo Products. “If we get more women in those roles, the bias against women doing those jobs will go away. But until you do that, you’ll have these good ol’ boy systems.”
   At Igloo, Glynn said the leadership saw beyond her being a woman.
   “That’s how we get in: someone willing to take a chance,” she said.
   And as others who had experience outside the industry noted, Glynn emphasized that inequality in the workplace is by no means unique to logistics. She joined the U.S. Army out of high school, and it didn’t take long to experience a sexist attitude from a superior.
   “I had a supervisor in the military station I was posted at in Germany,” she said. “While on a deployment in Bosnia, he told me a woman’s place was not in the army, and that I was supposed to be at home, making babies. This was my sergeant, the person who was supposed to be guiding me. I let him know he was wrong, and I was not accustomed to failing. My goal in life was to prove him wrong.”
   After returning home and earning her college degree, Glynn landed a position as a vessel superintendent, doing yard operations for a private terminal in the Port of Houston.
   “One time, I had gentleman cat call me,” she said. “I asked him if he liked his job, because if so, he better not do that again. Women have grown used to having to prove themselves. It’s sad that women, on face value, aren’t giving the same respect that men are. We have to learn faster, be tougher, work harder than a man just to show you deserve to be there. It’s not fair, but that’s the way it is.”

Logistics-Compliance Dichotomy. One aspect of the business of global trade that’s hard to deny: women overwhelmingly have a larger share of prominent roles in trade compliance than they do in logistics.
   It’s likely still not an even split, but Glynn, who handles both roles at Igloo, said she believes more women are involved in the compliance side because compliance has typically been seen as more of an administrative role, whereas logistics is seen as a strategic role.
   “Women seem to be better at detail-oriented work, or that’s the perception,” she said. “The more administrative it is, the more you lean toward a woman. Even a shipping clerk, he’s out in the field and handing it off to a group of women to do the data entry.”
   Thompson, who handled both roles at Crate and Barrel before moving to Integration Point, said her entry into logistics was linked to the fact that the import role she landed after starting as an in-store sales associate included both compliance and logistics responsibilities.
   But Beth Pride, president of the trade compliance consultant BPE Global and a former logistics manager at DHL and Hewlett-Packard, took issue with the notion that women are better suited to compliance—i.e. detail-oriented—roles over more strategic ones.
   “I don’t think it’s about women being more detail-oriented,” she said. “It’s about opportunity.”

“I don’t think [the fact that there are
more women in compliance roles is]
about women being more detailoriented.
It’s about opportunity.”
Beth Pride, president, BPE Global

   Pride said she’s been harassed multiple times in her career, and that being an outspoken woman has opened her up to treatment that men probably wouldn’t receive. It also held her back from her ambitions at times, which was one of the reasons she started her own business more than a decade ago.
   Pearce, who also juggled both compliance and logistics duties in her time at Lumber Liquidators, had another theory: that the type of company or sector a woman is in, or even the products that company makes, makes a difference when it comes to opportunities.
   “I’ve worked at Playtex and at Husqvarna,” she said. “If the product you’re selling has a masculine attachment to it, that makes a difference. The people I’ve worked with who are at Foot Locker or Talbots tend to be women, even in logistics.”
   Thompson agreed that retail tends to be an environment where women are more prevalent and prominent, all the way through to supply chain. Her predecessor at Crate and Barrel was a woman, as was her predecessor’s predecessor.
   That likely had an impact on Thompson’s positive work experience in logistics. She was one of the very few women American Shipper spoke with for this article who couldn’t think of a single instance in which she was adversely impacted, or made to feel uncomfortable during her time in the industry.
   “Retail is a heavily female industry to begin with,” she said. “And in retail it’s common to hire within, to grow up within the company. So there are a lot of female leadership positions to begin with.
   “But I also worked for a great company with a progressive attitude. Things are changing, and maybe the company I worked for was ahead of its time.”

Standing Up, Getting Out. Thompson said she wouldn’t have stayed with a company if it was one where men were given preferential treatment over women.
   Tania Garcia, senior vice president of marketing at American Global Logistics (AGL), had a similar message.
   “Your career is your responsibility and your responsibility only,” she said. “The onus is on each of us, male or female, to seek the next step. I think it’s dangerous to blame a lack of movement on anyone else. If woman is in a company that does that, she should do everything in her power to get somewhere else.”

pushed me
and gave
me my
biggest challenges in
logistics were men. There’s
no shortage of men who
didn’t take me seriously
at first. But if you know
what you’re doing and
are articulate, and meet
those situations head-on,
there’s not an issue.”
Tania Garcia, senior vice
president of marketing,
American Global Logistics

   Garcia is somewhat of a newcomer to logistics, though she did spend time at UPS more than a decade ago before joining AGL in 2017. She said logistics isn’t all that different from other industries in terms of leadership equality.
   “My experience in logistics is that the most common frustration for women is not being taken seriously,” she said. “People underestimating women and their capability and intelligence. That sucks. But my experience is also that if you present yourself properly and do the work, the superficial part recedes and the intelligence takes precedence.
   “Logistics is an operationally heavy job. That leads to more males, and those people tend to work their way up through the industry. But I don’t think there’s more misogyny in logistics than any other industry. [It’s] just maybe one that women didn’t think about all the much in the past.”
   Garcia said that could and should change in the near future, as technology unlocks new opportunities that women and men can grasp equally.
   “The increased application of technology is going to make it very exciting,” she said. “I encourage women to look at a strategic approach to facilitating commerce and global trade. I think logistics is a phenomenal field for women.”
   And while Garcia agreed that a preponderance of men in leadership roles can be self-perpetuating, her experience has been the opposite.
   “The people who pushed me and gave me my biggest challenges in logistics were men,” she said. “There’s no shortage of men who didn’t take me seriously at first. But if you know what you’re doing and are articulate, and meet those situations head-on, there’s not an issue. Most of the people who would do it to women would do it to other people.”
   Pearce said that in addition to men being more open to women taking on leadership roles, women probably need to take the shackles off themselves at times as well.
   “It’s endemic, ingrained,” she said. “There are times I’m complicit in it. If I change my speech, or take less credit, then I’m contributing. It’s communicating that having a family is not going to necessarily disqualify you.
   “If you look at a lot of the management stats, women self-censor. They take themselves out of the running. They’ll think, ‘I don’t tick all the boxes.’ Men say to themselves, ‘I hit 4 of 5 boxes. I’m ready.’ Women are like, ‘I only hit 4 out of 5 boxes.’”
   Kersten said companies need to focus on introspection, not statistics.
   “I don’t think my perspective is you have to set quotas,” she said. “You need to be cognizant. Are you hiring women, but also what are the development paths for your female employees and are those equivalent to those available for men? Do you need to catch up? Maybe the coaching you need as leaders is to be more open and recognize your own biases on males versus females, how they process, how they communicate to you. Are you carrying biases you’re not even aware of?”
   Kuznetsova, who has served on the boards of multiple organizations, said the focus should go all the way to the top, and that ignoring women is especially problematic in an industry that is hungering for talent.
   “Whenever you go from a point where women account for 40 to 50 percent to 10 percent, that’s where your glass ceiling starts,” she said. “You need to figure out why it starts there. It’s about the culture. Are they asking recruiters for a diverse slate of candidates? Do women get access to mentoring? And ensure, first and foremost, that you have women serving at the board level. It’s important to question those things at the board level when we talk about talent acquisition.”
   For Thompson, diversity has value that extends beyond giving people a chance that might not have normally had the opportunity. It’s “unequivocally” a competitive advantage.
   “You’re discounting half the workforce, and discounting half the way to think about a problem,” she said. “I want to be careful not to lump genders in big buckets. Everybody is an individual. But to throw out half the candidates to lead an entire team based on their gender is not a strategic thing to do for your company.”

Editor’s Note: Maryanna Kersten is a current member of American Shipper’s editorial board, while Holly Pearce and Virginia Thompson are past members. Beth Pride and BPE Global partner with American Shipper on global trade-related research initiatives.

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