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Industrial Distribution’s Glass Ceiling, Part I

Industrial Distribution’s Glass Ceiling, Part I

By Bridget McCrea

As Malini Natarajarathinam looks around at the industrial distribution landscape, she sees a noticeable lack of women in prominent job roles up and down the career ladder. While they may fill marketing, human resources, and administrative positions, women rarely hold management and executive positions in the distribution space. An associate professor with the Department of Engineering Technology and Industrial Distribution at Texas A&M University, Natarajarathinam sees this as the classic “chicken and the egg” problem.

“Because there aren’t many women working in leadership and management positions in industrial distribution, the field as a whole becomes less inviting to women,” she points out. “For the most part, you don’t hear women aspiring to work in distribution when they ‘grow up.’ Unfortunately, that means the industry is missing out on 50% of the workforce that could potentially contribute to its growth and success.”

Interested in learning more about the dearth of women in industrial distribution, Natarajarathinam recently paired up with Allie Copeland, general manager at Accuserv in Farmers Branch, Texas (and former vice president of operations at Standard Supply & Distributing, Inc.), to do an in-depth survey exploring gender diversity (or, lack thereof) in the field. “We wanted to do a survey to assess the current status quo, identify the problem—if there was one—and see what could be done to change it,” says Natarajarathinam, “or at least attempt to change it.”

Survey Says
In Women in Industrial Distribution: Emerging Opportunities and Challenges for Female College Graduates,Natarajarathinam and Copeland explore the multibillion-dollar U.S. industrial distribution industry and the disproportionate number of male-to-female workers within the field. They examine perceptions related to the challenges and opportunities facing the female gender within a business climate composed of business-to-business transactional sales environments. A total of 293 respondents participated in the study and were recruited as former or current professional graduate students of a university industrial distribution program, through industrial distribution trade organizations and online networking or recruitment sites.

Participants included men and women currently engaged in a career in the industrial distribution industry (the respondent ratio included 60% female respondents to 39% male). Through this research, Natarajarathinam and Copeland found that less than 25% of the employed workforce is made up of female employees (versus the U.S. total female workforce participation of 57%). And while there are no known studies that discuss gender stereotypes for females entering or currently engaged in the industry, they say that women applicants for managerial positions are accepted significantly less often than equally qualified males. Furthermore, in traditionally male-dominated positions there is a preference to select males (and, for recruiters to select male applicants over female prospects).

Specifically, this research explores the following questions by analyzing survey data from current industrial distribution professionals:

• What sort of challenges should a female within the industrial distribution industry expect to encounter?

• What opportunities exist for females entering or currently in the industrial distribution industry?

• Do perceptions about female opportunities and challenges vary based on a respondent’s gender?

According to Natarajarathinam, the dearth of women in industrial distribution can be traced back to the university or college level, where fewer women select industrial distribution as an academic major and/or potential career track. That’s likely because the majority of industrial distribution recruitment materials are designed toward male students, she notes, and because the majority of industrial distribution-focused college recruiters, faculty, students, and advisors are also male.

“Through our research,” says Natarajarathinam, “we determined that recruitment at the university level could benefit from working to identify female students that have an interest in industrial distribution based on showing a propensity for certain personality traits, behaviors, and interests among other factors.”

No Leadership Track
When Natarajarathinam and Copeland asked survey participants to identify the areas of management where women hold leadership positions, they noticed a significant drop off beyond the vice president level. And, during the open-ended survey discussion, respondents reported that many female senior managers develop through administrative and support roles rather than traditional “field” level apprentice operations (e.g., warehouse, branch, counter, and sales positions).

There was also a noticeable lack of female sales representatives, sales managers, and senior leaders in the field, with one respondent attributing this dearth to the “relationship-developing that begins during the apprentice phase at the field level,” and the fact that males are generally more attracted to this work due to its physical nature. “Several respondents acknowledged that females in the industry usually hold administrative or staff roles that support the sales and operations departments,” notes Natarajarathinam, “with the assumption being that males dominate both the sales and operations verticals within industrial distribution.”

When asked about the biggest challenges they faced in industrial distribution, women reported being encouraged to take on more “support roles” (i.e., administrative assistants) and being excluded from male activities such as sporting events or golf. There were several comments that described the industry as being a “boys’ club.” Women also expressed frustration with finding female mentors in the industry and sexual discrimination coming from the customer base more so than from coworkers, Natarajarathinam notes.

Favorable Environment, But There’s Work to be Done
Overall, the industrial distribution climate is positive for both male and female participants. This is based on the fact that the majority of respondents reported satisfaction and did not report instances of gender stereotyping, internal discrimination, or internal harassment.

“Despite this positive climate, the research has shown evidence that a glass ceiling is present for women in the industry,” says Natarajarathinam. “Additionally, men are less likely to acknowledge the existence of this glass ceiling, indicating that firms could benefit from succession planning, training, and consideration for women in the industry with a keen focus on providing equal opportunities for employment and promotion.”

In Part II of this article series we’ll hear Natarajarathinam’s and Copeland’s recommendations for creating a more diverse industrial distribution workforce for the future.

McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.


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