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Reverse Logistics

Breaking Barriers and Shattering Ceilings: Women at the Forefront of Supply Chain & Reverse Logistics

Happy International Women’s Day! March 8th is a day to celebrate women’s achievements, challenge gender biases, and #InspireInclusion. We have taken this opportunity to spotlight some of the remarkable women who drive progress in traditionally male-dominated fields, like supply chain and reverse logistics, overcoming gender biases and leading innovation towards a more inclusive and sustainable future.

Partnering with the Reverse Logistics Association’s Women in Reverse Logistics Committee, goTRG created an open-ended survey with questions exploring the themes of pioneering women in supply chain and reverse logistics; the role of women in greening the supply chain; women-led supply chain innovations; empowering women through education and training; challenges and opportunities for women; impact of diversity, networking and support systems; and the future trends and role of women. Through these themes we explore gender diversity and inclusion, how women drive innovation and sustainability, overcome gender bias, break barriers, and empower women through professional development.

The Reverse Logistics Association (RLA) is the exclusive authoritative organization in the reverse logistics industry and the only niche space that gives women in our industry a place to belong, build relationships, and feel heard. goTRG salutes the RLA Women in Reverse Logistics Committee and all women in supply chain and reverse logistics for their trailblazing efforts and daily contributions to innovation, leadership, and positive transformation.

Fostering inclusion and innovation in supply chain and reverse logistics

Promoting and supporting a culture where new ideas are welcomed and encouraged, and where people from diverse backgrounds feel valued and integrated in the workplace environment, leads to more innovative solutions. It also fosters a more dynamic, high-performance, and adaptive organization. An inclusive environment celebrates people from all genders and backgrounds where diversity is considered a strength and is used to enhance productivity, creativity, employee satisfaction, and business growth.

The supply chain and reverse logistics industry has flourished over the years due in large part to its increasingly open, inclusive, and diverse community of participants. While still being predominantly male, especially in executive roles, the industry continues to evolve, particularly when it comes to female leaders driving and growing core business units. While the industry has come a long way, there's still a journey ahead towards achieving ideal gender diversity and inclusivity.

goTRG was able to connect with some iconic female figures in supply chain and reverse logistics from the RLA Women in Reverse Logistics Committee, gaining both fresh perspectives from those new to the field and insights from true industry veterans who have witnessed significant shifts throughout the decades. Here, they share their positive experiences, highlighting the progress that they have helped to make.

With more than three decades of experience in reverse logistics, Desiree Paoli, Senior Manager of Reverse Logistics and Supply Chain at Walgreens, has witnessed the industry change from a more homogenous paradigm to a welcoming and diverse space. “You have much more support now than you did 35 years ago as a woman working in reverse logistics. Networking opportunities had mostly men, specifically older white men, who all knew each other and had been in this area of work for a long time. There was not a lot of sharing or learning opportunities to expand our knowledge or share best practices. And, when I tried, I was not taken seriously being young and a female in a male dominated industry,” Ms. Paoli shared.

“The RLA provides networking opportunities with people that are new, or of varying backgrounds to meet and interact,” added Ms. Paoli. “Everyone helps each other regardless of experience or background. They want to help the people they meet. It is more of a welcoming community feel that is here to support each other and be receptive of new people and ideas.”

The RLA is committed to educating members with webinars and various programs and events throughout the year, including hosting the annual RLA Conference and Expo, which holds a Women’s Luncheon aggregating the female powerhouses of the industry in the same room for networking, community building and learning opportunities.

Another female trailblazer with more than two decades in supply chain, Sacni Leon is the Head of DTX Operations, Inventory Control, Reverse Logistics and Circularity Operations at Logitech. Ms. Leon attributes much of her success to having had incredible managers and access to mentors that helped her grow and presented her with opportunities based on her skills, experience, and drive.

She has taken these positive experiences to fuel her own leadership style. “In my team everyone has a voice. We all know that as we drive innovation, there will be things that will not work, but we must always try and push the envelope,” Ms. Leon stated. She added, “In my team there is a culture where we are all in it to deliver and we will support each other in all aspects to meet our goals.” With a commitment to making sustainable decisions and nurturing an inclusive team environment, Ms. Leon champions a culture of innovation, resilience, and decision-making with a clear focus on how these decisions and actions will impact the future.

Another example of the benefits of having a diverse team when brainstorming innovative business solutions includes, “Women tending to think in more detail and from a customer point of view, whereas my male colleagues are more technical and to the point. It’s a good combo to have both views and approaches,” highlights Emily Gibson, Director of Marketing for RAF Technology.

Advancing the inclusion of women in shaping the future of the supply chain and reverse logistics industry offers important perspectives that have maybe in the past been ignored. Bringing a fresh point of view to supply chain and reverse logistics, Kristen Barry, VP of Marketing at Apkudo, offers her opinion on how inclusivity drives innovation, “I believe women can bring more empathy and humanity to problem-solving. We need to work together to transform this industry to prioritize and solve for circularity. It starts with trust, and trust is earned through empathy and a real understanding of the problems each supply chain practitioner faces day in and day out.” 

Fostering inclusion and innovation within the supply chain and reverse logistics industry is not just a matter of diversity for the sake of representation to check off a DEI box, but a strategic imperative for driving success. By promoting a work culture where new ideas are embraced, and individuals from diverse backgrounds are valued, the supply chain and reverse logistics industry can harness the full spectrum of human potential to create more innovative solutions and build dynamic, high-performance organizations.

Women overcoming obstacles, challenges and bias in supply chain and reverse logistics

While there are many positive experiences where women are fortunate to have opportunities readily open for them based on merit, there is also the flip side of the coin where women feel like they must work tirelessly just to be taken seriously in a man’s world. This often means overcoming biases and breaking through invisible barriers that persist despite qualifications and achievements. The struggle to establish credibility in their chosen fields can be a daily reality, demanding more than professional excellence but also the courage to challenge and change longstanding norms and biases.

Ms. Gibson candidly divulged, “I went to three business meetings after which the men invited me on a date. I was not there for dating, so it took me off guard.” Ms. Gibson’s disclosure is not a solitary voice, but a chorus echoed by many. This unprofessional conduct is obstructive, derailing the focus from a woman’s professional capabilities to her personal attributes irrelevant to their job performance and expertise. It underscores a disrespect for boundaries and an undermining of women’s roles and contributions, emphasizing the need for a dismantling of outdated stereotypes and a renewed commitment to equality and respect in all professional interactions.

Interrupting a woman mid-sentence, undermining her competency or contribution is a tale as old as time. Recently, April Wiley, Senior Director of Business Development at DHL Supply Chain with more than thirty years of experience in supply chain and reverse logistics, was selected by her senior leadership team to lead a high-profile project. Upon being given this opportunity, she was told by a male counterpart that the company was “just trying to promote more women”. Implying that she was selected just because she is a woman being used as a token in a surface DEI quota effort, as opposed to earning it because of her skills and achievements.

Ms. Wiley reminded her colleague of her contributions to the subject matter over the years and requested his support and participation. She complimented him on his good ideas, disarming him while taking charge of the project. “When overcoming gender bias in the workplace, I try to be easy going about reminding people that things have changed,” Ms. Wiley commented and added, “With a light tone, I will say something to disarm them yet remind them that certain things are not acceptable. Tone is important and confidence with a lot of grace. I find confidence is not loud nor dominant—it is subtle yet clear!” 

It is a delicate balance that women are constantly having to tightrope and navigate the nuanced challenges of a professional landscape that is still leveling its playing field. Whilst we continue to advocate for women’s strides in supply chain and reverse logistics, we cannot turn a blind eye to the complex mosaic of the female experience in this field.

To break the barriers, the issues must first be recognized and acknowledged, including one of the most persistent challenges women face—not being paid and promoted the same as men. “Equal pay and equal opportunity for career advancement in logistics and distribution center work remain an obstacle that women face in supply chain and reverse logistics,” underscored Ms. Paoli.

As we reflect on the varied experiences of women in supply chain and reverse logistics, it becomes evident that while progress has been made, significant hurdles persist. From facing implicit biases to navigating unprofessional conduct, women continue to confront challenges that impede their professional growth. Yet, amidst these obstacles, we have victories that exemplify resilience and resourcefulness. By addressing bias with confidence and grace, women can reshape workplace dynamics, forging the path for future generations.

Women paving the way for a sustainable future

With the slow yet steady progression of gender equality, we also see the increasingly significant role women play in greening the supply chain. In the quest for a sustainable future, women are emerging as key architects, restructuring the landscape of supply chain and reverse logistics with innovative approaches and forward-thinking initiatives.

Jan Hawthorne, Support Manager for the Reverse Logistics Association (RLA) believes that fostering a culture of innovation is key for success and leaders can do this by “encouraging input, listening to that input, looking at the big picture, and asking questions—how does this function affect the steps before and after? Is there an impact?”

Female leaders are drivers of sustainability, creating a positive future impact while delivering tangible business benefits. As we delve further into the experiences of these remarkable women, it becomes evident that female leadership is not just about breaking barriers, but about building a greener future. The correlation between women in decision-making roles and greener supply chains is undeniable. 

For instance, Ms. Wiley is currently helping to build a more sustainable future with initiatives like the DHL Service Logistics Circular Supply Chain product. Ms. Wiley explained, “As an additional value to our Circular Solution, we are committed to Carbon Neutral warehouses and sustainable transport in/out of the centers. DHL has a strong innovation focus with five Innovation Centers around the globe and a clear innovation strategy that capitalizes on trends and new technologies.”

Ms. Wiley's focus on carbon-neutral warehouses and sustainable transport underscores DHL's dedication to innovation and environmental stewardship. Similarly, Ms. Paoli demonstrates the tangible impact of eco-friendly practices within supply chains.

“I led a project at Walgreen’s where we looked at all the corrugate boxes we were using in our stores and distribution centers and determined a consolidation strategy,” Ms. Paoli mentioned. She described in greater detail, “We were able to reduce the number of suppliers and boxes we were buying by 50%. By re-examining our use of resources, we saved nearly $4 million annually on box costs. In addition, we identified a way to reuse the store order boxes used in our reverse logistics processes instead of purchasing additional plastic totes. This was an additional $5.6 million in savings. We also found away to reuse the boxes a third time for select return to vendor (RTV) shipments. The program exceeded the business case benefit and met the goals of the project for supply chain reduce and reuse with a costs cash benefit savings.”

The project Ms. Paoli drove, aimed at streamlining packaging materials, not only reduced costs but also significantly minimized Walgreen’s environmental footprint—a testament to the transformative power of sustainability-driven initiatives spearheaded by women.

Ms. Barry is most excited about seeing through the innovation of circularity. “Circularity is not just an emerging trend. It’s imperative for our planet. I am new to the industry, yet compelled to do my part to illustrate that purpose does not have to be sacrificed for financial performance.”

To drive innovation, we must be able to see beyond the horizon, an advantage most often demonstrated in women. Ms. Hawthorne explains,“Men tend to look backward at what they have accomplished. Sometimes, that can be good if they learn and improve for forward progress. But to continually tout what they did 15 or 20 or 25 years ago is not relevant. Forward vision is a challenge for many men. Women, in my experience, tend to look to the future, outside of what has already been done and on what can be improved.” 

As we can see, female leadership in supply chain and reverse logistics often correlates with a stronger emphasis on sustainability initiatives, driven by innovative approaches and forward-thinking strategies.These female leaders prioritize environmental stewardship, driving profitability through eco-friendly practices that reduce costs and minimize environmental impact. Their commitment to sustainability and the circular economy not only benefits their organizations but also contributes to a greener future for our planet.

Empowerment and advice for aspiring women in supply chain and reverse logistics

The voices of women are rising, advocating for inclusivity, and using the transformative power of their unique perspectives and lived experiences. The advice and stories offered here serve as a guiding light, illuminating the way through the shadows of biases and towards a more gender balanced world.

Young women aspiring for a career in supply chain and reverse logistics must, “Know your worth and stand firm. Business ethics is a key to integrity. Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask questions. It’s ok to quit a job if there is unethical management. Do not compromise your standards and always be willing to learn,” advised Ms. Hawthorne.

A major initiative of change stems from the willingness to learn and progressive educational programs that promote equal opportunities. Education is imperative in generating more interest and expertise among women in supply chain and reverse logistics.

“Educational initiatives to empower women need to be for both men and women. Men (in a male-dominated environment) need to understand the challenges being put on women (intentionally or not intentionally) and how to create, foster and work within a gender-generic environment,” added Ms.Hawthorne thoughtfully.

While the industry has evolved, the responsibility for true change and action lies on the shoulders of women. Ms. Wiley expressed with vindication, “The changes are happening or have happened in mature organizations. It is now up to us to believe in ourselves to ask for more and take the lead in creating our best future! Don’t be shy! Ask yourself—if I were not afraid, what would I do? And DO THAT!”

Confidence, integrity, and a determination to seize every opportunity and not get discouraged by obstacles is a common thread in the words of wisdom provided by these women with Ms. Paoli adding, “Believe in yourself and don’t be afraid to try something new that you have not done in the past. Network as much as you can and get involved with organizations like the RLA and other learning opportunities to connect with peers and develop your personal career path.”

The narratives of these pioneering women communicate that progress has a multifaceted face—one of innovation, resilience, and unyielding determination. The stories of these women encapsulate the journey of an industry evolving through the contributions of female professionals who are redefining norms and expectations.

#InspireInclusion

For those aspiring to enter the field, the advice is clear: seek mentorship, nurture your sense of self-worth, and don't shy away from new challenges. Embrace networks and organizations that provide platforms for growth and recognize that every contribution paves the way for a future where gender parity is not an aspiration but a norm.

As we honor these trailblazers on International Women’s Day, we are reminded of the strength of women across the globe who continue to inspire change and foster inclusion. This day serves as a beacon for envisioning a future where gender diversity is an integral and sought-after aspect of every industry, including supply chain and logistics. Let us all commit to building on the progress made, engaging with and promoting women's voices, and ensuring their stories are not only told but also celebrated.

goTRG stands committed to supporting the growth, learning, and empowerment of women within our organization, however there is so much more we can do and learn as a company. Campaigns like this provide valuable opportunities for our male colleagues to gain insights into the challenges faced by women in our industry. We hope this serves as a powerful reminder for everyone to pause and reflect on how we can make internal changes to elevate our organization to one that is more inclusive and understanding.

Join RLA’s Women in Reverse Logistics Committee

The Women in Reverse Logistics Committee promotes people coming together to celebrate the role of Women in Reverse Logistics by sharing our knowledge, expertise, experiences in the workplace through leadership, networking support and excellent communication.

The committee convenes regularly via virtual meetings throughout the year to exchange insights, discuss challenges, propose solutions, and explore business prospects related to various aspects of the reverse logistics sector. Committee involvement is one of the perks of RLA membership. If your company is not yet a member and you're interested in joining a committee, please reach out to committee@rla.org for details on membership options.

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