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Cheryl Avery examines the invaluable role women play within procurement

As a senior woman within the Ministry Of Justice, Cheryl Avery examines the invaluable role women play within procurement in the public sector and discusses her involvement with the Governments’ diversity strategy.

Early career and current role

My career began at Fujitsu on a development programme, where I had the opportunity to move around the business, trying lots of different roles. They sent me to college to study, through which I gained a varied experience. I then moved to another division of the business which was still part of the development programme, working as a Distribution Engineer and studying logistics. Then an opportunity came up to move into procurement. I always felt there was an affinity with what the Procurement Department did and how they worked - what I did wasn’t dissimilar. I had always interacted with the procurement team so it was really nice to finally get into it, especially in an organisation that had such a big spend and was a really important client for many companies. During that time, I also started studying for my CIPS (Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply) - it was great to be able to learn the theory whilst working in an environment where I could put it into practice.

I now head up Technology and Digital within Commercial for the whole of the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) – my team is responsible for buying everything that comes under the Technology and Digital banner. We get involved with the prisons, in the courts, in the ALBs (Arms-Length Bodies) and at HQ. The total spend is about £1.4bn per year so it is a large area of spend under management. We need to focus on driving costs down but, because there are regulations we have to work within, we need to understand how we make those regulations work for us and, most importantly, recognise that everything is about delivery.

Team structure and diversity

I have 60 people in my team - from contract managers to a mix of permanent and interim resources, some of whom are brought in for a specific skill; they are doing a whole remit of things like sourcing, deal making and much more. We nurture and develop the team, which is a key part of what we do. I believe it is important to ‘grow your own’ and make sure you’ve got a healthy pipeline of resources within the organisation.

The team is approximately a 60:40 split of men to women and it is a very diverse team. I’m very keen to make sure we have a good mix – public sector is meant to represent the community that it supports.

The gender split within the senior levels of the MOJ is similar to other organisations I have worked in - it is male dominated. Unfortunately, there is currently only one woman on the executive committee. I first joined the MOJ as an interim and then decided to become permanent because there was a heavy female presence on the executive committee – there were four women in the group of eight people. It was very rare, particularly for a public sector environment.

Own ambitions and making a difference

I’m very keen to move beyond SCS1 level and become at least a Director General if I can. That means stepping out of the commercial environment and moving in a more generalist role, because procurement and commercial is such a specialist area. Finance is often a springboard for people to move into other things, but commercial does give you a broad perspective. From my current position, I have a view of what goes on across the whole of the MOJ, not just technology – that is a really advantageous position to be in. Here, we have quite a few women at SCS (Senior Civil Service) level – five of us  are part of the leadership team in commercial. It’s a great thing to see and is a good eclectic mix.

In my day to day role I do feel like I am making a difference - especially because technology forms such a significant part of the change that’s going on at the moment. There is a huge wave of positive change, not just for the organisation but also for the people who receive the services of the organisation.

My Procurement teams’ objectives are value for money - we don’t talk about lowest cost. It is about when you are procuring your good or service, who it is impacting, the whole life cost and the resulting benefits of having that service or product. You still have to be commercially aware because you’re spending from the public purse, but it is also a strategic role so you’ve got to understand the longer-term.

Women in procurement in the public sector

I would encourage women coming in to procurement to try to understand the bigger picture and relate back to what their skill sets are and how they can link up. It is very important to have that empathetic quality - it’s got to be strong and you’ve got to be passionate about what you’re doing. We offer training in empathy skills - women are generally more empathetic, however there are some great male leaders here who have that skill set too.

There are differences in working styles between female and male colleagues – if men have a task, they will get it done. They are more methodical in their approach and some of the softer skills may not be at the top of their priority. Women are equally as focused at getting the job done but due to their soft skills, they can take people on a journey to where they need to be.

In order for people to make a decision, they need to know the key aspects and what the decision will involve. If you engage with them early enough and pre-communicate with them and keep them informed, the decision making process becomes much easier. People have different communication styles - I find women are generally better at understanding that, and pick up quicker how an individual likes to work.

From my experience as a senior woman in business, there is a big difference between the public and private sector. Everything in the private sector is about bottom line, lean process, and maximum profit. Delivery is a constant across both sectors, but it is also the place where they start to divide - you look across public sector and you ask, ‘why are you doing that’? In the private sector some people never get to ask that. It is important that you think about what you do - if you make a mistake, it’s a great story and you can’t just ‘buy’ yourself out.

I am motivated by troubleshooting; parachuting in and sorting a problem. My experience of being a contractor was great for that. The public sector cries out for that in procurement departments - a lot of the contractors I bring on board are female, they have good influencing skills and are good at building relationships. Women are great at thinking on their feet, coming up with the right answers and applying them.

I do believe women are better at adapting too. During my recruitment process, they brought in a number of people from the private sector. We thought we were going to come in and change the world – it took us about three months to realise that we needed to change our approach. You quickly learn that if you take the time to sit with someone and explain what you’re trying to do and make them feel their decisions are important, you can then move on to much more interactive and meaningful discussions. The influencing skills and emotional intelligence that women can utilise are invaluable to tell when someone is engaging in the right way.

Personal development

When I first joined, a number of the team were very stationary, desk based with little interaction with stakeholders. I brought in an understanding that it’s not just about going through the motions, but thinking of customers as stakeholders and treating each other with a level of respect – focusing on the mantra, ‘enablers, not blockers’. We are bringing in more people from the private sector and the cultural influence is sweeping across Government. There is training now around personal development. You see civil servants walking and talking differently, wanting to challenge things, wanting to question the balance. The most important thing is recognising that some of our frameworks are rigid and don’t adapt.

I am meeting students and undergraduates as part of what I do and I try to help them, recognise what they’re capable of. I mentor eight young women and I want to build leaders of the future. They are strong and capable but sometimes they don’t have the confidence. As soon as you highlight where their strengths are you can see them flourish. This is something I do personally, not an MOJ initiative, but they do schemes like this within the Government too.

Role models

I  recently met Baroness Steadman; she sponsors a Woman of the Year award for women who have started businesses from nothing. She has been really inspirational and I’ve met so many amazing people through her. Equally, Baroness McGregor-Douglas is just amazing, the things she has achieved! There is also Baroness Scotland, who was the youngest woman to the bar. There are all these amazing women out there who haven’t all come from privileged backgrounds – they’ve worked hard, they understand the value of learning and have the urge to keep going.

Diversity and Inclusion Strategies

I am one of the Race Champions for the MOJ. In my role I work with three other Race Champions and we collaborate with Richard Heaton, our Permanent Secretary. Richard is the Race Champion for the whole of central Government and together we support race issues and priorities. We look at where there are discrepancies in the D&I (Diversity and Inclusion) strategy. We try to drive change from a positive perspective and make sure we can influence at the right levels. We share ideas across central Government Departments.

Part of the job of the Race Champion is to look at under-represented groups - I particularly focus on the BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic). I support people within the organisation and I also go out and talk to undergraduates and students who are thinking about joining the civil service and know very little about it. I try to encourage them to join our fast track routes or apprenticeship scheme.  All those groups feel like they need a positive role model at a fairly senior level. If you haven’t got someone to aspire to, or shape your ideas around, it can be difficult to reach your full potential.

It is really important to be in an environment where you feel empowered. People very rarely go beyond a certain level because they find it hard to visualise themselves in that post. Having a positive role model in senior positions makes people think, ‘I can do that’. It is important to have that visibility. We are doing a lot of work around it and have targets we are looking to achieve - at the lower grades there is a lot of diversity, but as you get to the more senior levels, less so.

Our D&I strategy is working, but being in the public sector has taught me that you’ve got to play the long game. We had a conference a few months ago and one person stood up to say that they’d been in public sector for 20 years and when they’d first joined as an under-represented group, people didn’t take them seriously, let alone get to SCS level. You’ve got to recognise success and that we have progressed - we do have diversity in those positions now, plus people are talking about it more openly, they are embracing it and want to make a difference. The MOJ wants to become one of the most inclusive organisations in the country. We have huge D&I strategies and we have representation from all under-represented groups.

Overcoming diversity and being a successful woman in procurement

I’ve not directly had any negative experiences as a woman in procurement and I feel I’ve probably been very fortunate. Some of the stories I heard from people working in certain parts of the business were shocking. Being a first generation to come to the UK, you learn resilience and you learn how to work with people to gain respect. Coming from the procurement world helps, it teaches you that you simply have to be able to work together and deliver what both parties need. Technology is very male dominated - I observed how other women worked in this world from a very early part of my career. I sit in meetings and I am often the only woman, or the only person from a minority background. I always make sure I am ready and armed with whatever I need to deliver. You want to be credible. You want to come across as someone who is confident, knows what they’re talking about and can back it up with the skills and knowledge required.

You can read similar articles in our Women in Procurement Insight magazine. To recieve a hard copy of this magazine please contact