Women in supply chains: Asking the wrong questions?

María Esther Rivas, head of Bidasem, a small seed company in Mexico that provides small farmers with quality seeds. Corporations now finally seem to realize the importance of women and women-owned businesses in their supply chains. Photo by: X. Fonseca / CIMMYT / CC BY-NC-SA

The debate about the benefits of incorporating women into supply chains is over: the business case has been made, and the questions the development community asks now are important.

Sometimes, however, we’re just asking the wrong questions.

“There is a broadening and deepening recognition on behalf of corporations of the importance that investing in women has on their core business,” Justin Sosne, a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Secretary of State’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, said on Wednesday during an event hosted by the Society for International Development at the IREX headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Sosne — currently on loan to Coca-Cola — explained from the leadership all the way down, corporations across the board now finally seem to realize the importance of women and women-owned businesses in their supply chains.

As businesses and development agencies and organizations operate in this new paradigm, now we need to evaluate how the growing role of women in supply chains can work best for both companies and women, noted Marieme Esther Dassanou, a global specialist in women’s access to finance at the International Finance Corp.

Meet client needs

Recognizing women’s role in supply chains is a step in the right direction, but that doesn’t come without challenges — including the fact that in some industries or locations there remain critical gaps in the ability of women-owned businesses to supply the needed goods or services.

“The needs of the corporation are not going to change because she’s a woman, so what do we do in order to start providing solutions that meet what this client in front of me is asking me for?” Dassanou asked.

She gave the example of an IFC client looking for women-owned enterprises in the truck maintenance, auto parts and engineering fields, where they are nearly nonexistent.

“How do we actually create these types of services locally in order for this to work,” she said.

In some cases where the businesses do exist, the women themselves don’t see that fact as an asset to use in growing their business or finding new buyers, said Liz Whitehead, director of women’s business development at WEConnect International.

“Women aren’t lining up to say yes I’m controlling my company,” she said, adding that often legal and cultural barriers exist that limit women’s ability to access broader opportunities.

Training is also critical in order for businesses to understand their capabilities, and how they align with the needs, regulations and standards of the companies they might supply.

“While the political will may be there to source from women the devil is in the details in many ways,” Sosne said, adding that women should adhere to a company’s policies for the deal to make sound financial sense.

Encourage, but don’t force the issue

Development organizations, Dassanou pointed out, can help understand value chains and where women can be involved in order to help companies meet their internal goals, and in some cases local content requirements.

She added that the role of women doesn’t necessarily need to be legislated: “What we don’t also want to do is to put a certain burden on companies that would push them away from involving women in the first place anyway.”

Instead, organizations can help companies fulfill existing requirements with women-owned businesses. That’s what WEConnect does, and Whitehead explained that women are integral to achieving goals in a sustainable way.

“I don’t think its always necessary to silo women as if they’re not a part of these other goals,” she said.

Too often these women and women-owned businesses are treated differently, discussed differently and their success is measured differently, Whitehead said. While identifying appropriate metrics is important and can be challenging, you need ask the right questions.

“What would we ask male-owned businesses?,” she said. “When you look at the list of Fortune 500 companies, you’re not like, but are those guys happy? You know, how are they spending their money? It’s a metric. It’s numbers.”

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About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.