Since the logistics sector is notorious for being male-dominated, what initiatives are underway in the Middle East and throughout the world to encourage more women into the industry?
From appearances alone, the logistics industry is a man's world. Few would see dusty warehouses and grimy trucks as being of any appeal to women.
But it is precisely this kind of attitude that a growing number of well-educated and talented women are hoping to challenge by taking on ever more senior roles in the leading supply chain firms.
We need to sell the industry differently to women – there's no need to see it as a male or female industry.
However a number of challenges still remain, especially in the Middle East, where traditional notions of the woman's role in the family have tended to persist.
It is impossible to talk about women in logistics in the Middle East without mentioning the example of Salma Hareb. The appointment of Hareb as CEO of Jebel Ali Free Zone Authority (Jafza) has sent out a signal that individuals will be given senior roles on merit.
Indeed, her ability to handle the manifold demands on her time with an unruffled manner have done much to solidify her as leading light for women in the region. In April this year she was announced as leading the 2008 ‘Forbes Arabia' List of 50 Most Powerful Arab Businesswomen.
Although the logistics industry is desperately lacking women among its ranks, Hareb feels the situation will start to change in the future. "We have so many women working in the free zone now. They are constantly progressing higher up the ranks. However, I don't want to create a sense of gender discrimination. If the individual is capable, they will certainly progress in the organisation, regardless of being a male or a female."
But challenges still remain. According to the most recent survey carried out by Ohio State University about the trends of women working in logistics, few among those interviewed in the US are in a similar position to Hareb.
Around 32.1% of those surveyed described their role as manager within their company, while 19% were said to be a director. However few are in the vice president or president position, posts that tend to be held by their male counterparts.Only 3.8% of the women in the sample are head of the company, and just 14% are vice president. On the contrary, they reported that 86% of their immediate supervisors are males, and 88% of their supervisor's overseers are males.
This is not due to any shortage of skills. According to the results of the survey, the majority (41.3%) of the respondents have completed an undergraduate degree. 23% have an MBA qualification and 9.6% have graduated with a masters degree.
Feminists would cite this as an example of a "glass ceiling" seen elsewhere in the business world - where women can only progress so far but not all the way to the top.
However, if the logistics industry is dominated by male values it could be said that this is because there is a shortage of women who are simply willing to do the job.
"You don't hear much about females in this field," says Leslie Pagliari, a lecturer in logistics at East Carolina University. "It takes me twice as long to interest a female student in this programme as it does a male student."
Part of the reason that women are not found at the high levels of a logistics company are the long hours involved.
59% of those taking part in the survey said they dedicate between 40-50 hours each week to work-related activities while 31% say they spend 55-65 hours a week with work, and 5% said they spend 70 hours or more doing work each week.
Of those hours, 67.5% said they spend 76-100% of their time in the office and less than 30 days away on overnight business trips throughout the year.
Unsurprisingly, only 56% of the women surveyed said they were married. In the Middle East where traditional family roles of women persist, there are many more constraints on women.
"I have learnt there are different sensitivities between a woman handling this job and a man handling this job," says Hareb. "I believe men are very much attached to their work, while women are more attached to family and the home. I'm competing with people who would die for their jobs and eventually it starts getting hard. But, once you acknowledge the situation, it is possible to find a balance between personal and professional life."
However, according to Eliska Hill, who works as general manager in Dubai for the air cargo operations of charter carrier Chapman Freeborn, over the last five-10 years barriers are constantly being broken down.
"Freight forwarders which previously would not employ female staff are now opening their doors to more women, as they recognise that the skills and interest for the logistics and supply chain industry cannot only be sourced from the male side," she argues.
"The size and number of international companies based in the UAE offer greater opportunities for women in logistics than other industries within the Middle East. However, there is definitively still an ‘old boys' network' within the regional logistics industry, as I recently attended an awards ceremony and was one of less than five professional women there."
Around the world, initiatives have been set up to encourage women to join the industry.
In Canada, where women make up 27% of the logistics profession, authorities have offered scholarships for women to take courses in supply chain management.
In the US, the organisation Women in Logistics aims to support women already working in the industry and promote the merits of the profession. However more still needs to be done to sell the profession, says Janet Jweihan, UAE country manager for DHL.
"We need to sell the industry differently to women," she says.
"There's no need to see it as a male industry or female industry, just as an industry where good opportunities for both men and women do exist. Unfortunately the images of the industry do tend to promote logistics as a male sector, but women need to be able to see past this. What also needs to be done is providing women interested in entering the industry with the right resources and creating an information network for career development, mentoring and educational opportunities. In the long term, I personally think it is essential to establish institutes and educational systems that would provide the right support for these women in the Middle East."
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