Women make up around a third of the project management population — a figure that hasn’t changed a great deal over the last few years — and they also continue to be largely absent from leadership roles in major projects.
As the 2018 Major Project Association gender balance report pointed out, “Whilst companies may be recruiting significant numbers of women at apprentice and graduate level they are not staying in great numbers; they are not getting involved in major projects; and are not achieving leadership positions. This is a problem.”
Across all industry sectors, there is a wealth of qualified, competent women who can bring diverse skillsets — so what is behind the gender imbalance, particularly within major project leadership?
There are likely to be several factors at play, one of them being the stereotypes that exist around what makes a good project manager, as well as a certain level of unconscious bias.
Lucy Trueman, Founder and Managing Director at TruemanChange, says, “Some people hold the view that project management is about results, and many project managers are quite assertive in their nature, which can promote a sexist view that this is better suited to men, therefore men make ‘better’ project managers. This is not true at all, but I think the stereotype exists, so women face barriers that men don’t in convincing people that they are assertive enough for the role. Often the people they need to convince are men.”
She personally recalls attending a project management conference where airtime was given to a speaker discussing the differences between men and women in project management.
“This wasn’t something I’d come across before, an open debate about differences in gender, and frustratingly was framed very much around men being more analytical and women being more caring,” she says. “I, along with many other women in the room, were shocked, and in fact, several women left the room. I was disappointed that this was a specific workshop where it seemed perfectly OK to discriminate based on gender.”
Others believe that the barriers to gender parity are thrown up well before a woman starts her career as a project manager, going right back to childhood, with girls discouraged — consciously or otherwise — from taking Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM subjects).
This does explain the disproportionate number of women leading major projects. At that level project managers are often drawn from particular disciplines and via ‘project-dense’ sectors such as engineering, construction, technology, defense, and transport, which, in turn, draw their intake from the STEM subjects. So the project management field presents a double whammy for women seeking leadership roles.
Claire Dellar, founder and Director of Transformists, has worked in project management for 18 years and now mentors female project managers and leaders. She says, “While there are an increasing number of project management degrees and qualifications, most project professionals are recruited from those already working in the fields we project manage. Whether it’s construction, technology or product creation, these are also male-dominated STEM industries, so the pool of talent has already shrunk. Until we tackle the shortage of women taking STEM subjects at school and university, we will find it very difficult to bring women into the profession.”
Another potential barrier is flexibility — or a lack of it — in some of the roles available to project managers that aren’t easily aligned with life commitments, such as raising a family or eldercare, which traditionally fall to women. However Trueman refutes this.
She says, “Project management is generally much more flexible than an operational job, so this shouldn’t be a barrier. In an operational role you are often tied to opening times, service level agreements, customer demands, office hours, etc. This shouldn’t be the case in project management; it’s perfectly possible to run a project remotely and more flexibly than an operational role.”
Amber Burkhart, a consultant at Hogan Assessment Systems in the USA, points to the bigger picture and the reasons why women are held back generally. She says, “There are typically structures in place that continue to propagate systems that have been previously been in place. If men are typically filling these roles, and men are then selecting the next project managers, [then] there is likelihood that men will select other men.”
It’s widely accepted that gender diversity is good for companies; for one thing, they perform better financially, according to McKinsey’s 2015 ‘Why Diversity Matters’ report. What is increasingly agreed upon is that diversity is essential in leadership teams, yet tangible support for diversity tends to be heard rather than seen.
“When there is more female representation, you see a number of positive benefits for groups, organizations, and the individuals themselves,” says Burkhart. “From a personality assessment standpoint, when there is increased gender diversity, there are increases in creativity and innovation. This is likely due to a broader perspective of ideas being brought to the table. These particular characteristics, creativity and innovation, are extremely useful in project management roles, where novel solutions to complex problems are a daily part of the job.”
But there are those who argue that gender diversity aside, women find it difficult to promote themselves, and therefore, don’t come across as capable enough for higher positions.
“They believe promoting is bragging and hate it when men do this,” says Tineke Rensen, Founder of the Powerful Business Women’s Network, based in The Netherlands. “They like to be modest about their skills, and they also underestimate themselves. Unless they are 90% confident in being able to do the job they won’t apply for it. Men are different. When they apply and see they match the requirements for at least 60% they just believe they will figure out the rest.”
Encouraging more women into STEM careers is a starting point for addressing the gender imbalance in project management, but tangible improvement at the senior leadership level could be a long time in coming. Rensen advocates mandating gender diversity through quotas to help speed up the process.
She says, “I know that a lot of men would disagree with this and would argue that jobs should be awarded on merit, but they have no idea just how many suitable women there are who just do not apply for the major project leadership jobs.”
This post, as part of LiquidPlanner’s Women in Tech Week, is meant to highlight the talent, innovation, and creativity women bring to the technology community. This week, we’ll cover a range of topics by women authors in project management and technology roles to share their stories, perspectives, and tips on how to succeed in your career and help eliminate gender bias.