This is my video diary from the Association for Project Management’s Women in Project Management Special Interest Group 21st Anniversary Conference last week. Approx 5m22s.
This is my video diary from the Association for Project Management’s Women in Project Management Special Interest Group 21st Anniversary Conference last week. Approx 5m22s.
Next month sees the APM’s Women in Project Management group holding the 2014 National Conference & 21st Anniversary of Women in Project Management in London. I spoke to Teri Okoro, Chair of the special interest group and part of the team behind the anniversary preparations.
Teri, what’s on the agenda for the WiPM SIG now you’ve hit 21 years? And what celebrations are planned to celebrate 21 years?
WiPM have taken time to reflect on past achievement as well as plan for the future. We’ve redefined our mission with four key elements:
We are just concluding our second survey which has highlighted key issues and concern for our project managers today which they want the WiPM to address. We will start to profile female project managers on our web pages shortly. A support group for those applying to step up to RPP and FAPM is planned.
WiPM have branded 21st anniversary events around the country. We are very excited about the 2014 National Conference & 21st Anniversaryscheduled on 25th September 2014 in London with Baroness Susan Greenfield and Dame Stephanie Shirley as keynote speakers in the afternoon and a separate evening event with Vanessa Vallely and the Funny Women. Further information can be found, and bookings can be made, online here: 2014 National Conference & 21st Anniversary of Women in Project Management.
21 years is a long time! What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the project management arena since you started managing projects?
Technology is one key area of change in both our role as project and programme managers and in the way we communicate and operate as a SIG. Teams are able to communicate and share information faster as well as liaise over great distances. This is assisting with the complexity of projects but has also highlighted the critical contribution of people in delivering projects.
It is mixed. Our 2014 survey showed more women – 70% actually – had been in the industry for less than ten years, and if this trend continues then the overall numbers will continue to increase. However the survey also highlighted concerns over career progression and maintaining a work life balance. More women were interested in exploring freelance and consultant options than in our previous survey. There was also a desire for best practice to be shared including work place practices.
While I am optimistic about greater numbers of women in project management, I am concerned that if this talent pool is not adequately nurtured and managed, it could impact adversely on job satisfaction and retention. Companies with progressive workplace practices will continue to attract and retain women PMs.
What advice would you give a woman wanting a career in project management?
It’s challenging and can be quite fulfilling. It is well suited to women and utilizes skills that they have developed in everyday life. The huge range of sectors is also a plus. Planning for career progression is however as important as successfully delivering on projects and programmes. Let others be aware of your successes, be willing to take risks and learn from situations that do not turn out as planned. A sponsor is not optional as their support is key over time regardless of your own network. Finally, choose your employer carefully to maintain a good work life balance.
Women in project management also should be mindful that what gets them into a particular role will not necessarily move them on to the next stage. They have to be reflective and aware of the often unwritten rules of the workplace.
Finally, I’ve heard about the Inspire project. What’s it all about and how can we get involved?
The Inspiring the Future: Inspiring Women project is an external initiative which encourages young girls to aspire to careers they would not ordinarily have considered. They are looking to get 15,000 volunteers and are more than halfway there. WiPM is championing this initiative during our anniversary year, encouraging project managers both male and female to sign up. The time commitment is just one hour a year to visit a school close to your home or workplace and promote project management as a career choice.
APM overall is also supporting Inspiring the Future campaign and monitoring the number of project managers signing up. WiPM are commissioning a video for use in schools by both project managers and career advisors.
After more than ten years working in digital I’ve met a dozen or so female project managers but only two female web developers. Yes, two. I can still remember their names. Laura and Tanya. My anecdotal experience, sadly, seems to confirm the statistical reality that women in tech are in decline. So what’s going on? Why is it so hard being a woman in tech?
Being a digital project manager is a tough challenge for sure: you occupy the space in between the rock and the hard place. You need to be organised and plan ahead, yet you need to be creative and think on your feet when something doesn’t go to plan. You need to mitigate risk yet have the courage to press ahead when you don’t and can’t have all the facts to hand. The most demanding task though is having to communicate in different languages to a huge variety of people with opposing perspectives: talk tech to developers, wax lyrical to designers, report progress, budgets and bottom lines to the sponsor, and be a careful mix of attentive and instructive to all the people who’ll benefit from the end product be it an app, a website or a digital policy – they are all complex products to create requiring an equally complex skill set.
“It isn’t that girls can’t do it, it is that they are choosing not to do it.” Anne-Marie Imafidon
Are men really better at meeting that kind of challenge and therefore naturally drawn to it, and women worse and thus repelled? In my experience I’ve never observed women doing consistently better or worse than men, or vice versa. Mind you, I can’t say I’ve been looking out for a difference; I’m too busy getting on with being a project manager. One former digital executive who worked for a global IT firm shared with me her own personal experience and thoughts on being a female tech professional:
“Overall one can say that generally women always have to prove their competencies, when men just need to show up – dominant ideology – and that phenomenon is probably more present in certain types of profession than in others, where attributes are socially considered more ‘female’, like nursing or teaching.”
That women still have to prove themselves is disappointing to hear. Statistically, women may slowly be moving into more powerful business positions generally, but those gains are declining for IT or technical roles. Could a negative expectation of how they might be perceived be affecting whether or not they enter the IT or digital profession? Or could horror stories of how much harder they might need to work to achieve the same status as men be putting them off?
The only answer to that is yes, it’s possible. If a woman is going to have a harder time getting the same opportunities, promotions, salary, and recognition as a man then that is of course going to be an unnecessary and unfair barrier. And even though some women like Anne-Marie Imafidon, UK’s youngest graduate to attain a masters degree, are bucking the trend, she herself says “It isn’t that girls can’t do it, it is that they are choosing not to do it.”
So do the same observations and experiences hold true for digital project managers specifically? Liz Dowling, a digital project manager at Sky, shares her insight: “I personally don’t find a difference between a male or female project manager. The key is to have the right ingredients regardless of sex. Where I think it’s important for a woman to work with a difficult counterpart, again regardless of sex, is how you manage conflict without making it personal.”
So the key to being an effective project manager lies in your own level of skill and approach to conflict resolution, not in gender. This actually supports Anne-Marie’s suggestion that women can challenge existing barriers if they choose to. Padmasree Warrior, Cisco’s Chief Technology Officer, is proof it’s possible. And despite finding it daunting to have so few female colleagues, being a woman in a traditionally male-driven industry might have helped: “I always tell women that the fact that you’re different and that you’re noticed, because there are few of us in the tech industry, is something you can leverage as an advantage.”
What seems to be clear then is that while there doesn’t seem to be an overt and outright desire by men to not see women get into tech, we (men and women, that is) do need to continue breaking down lingering barriers and supporting the positive change already underway. There are many ways we can all do that: listen to women in the vanguard like Nelly Yusupova, CTO of Webgrrls International, promote industry awards like Drum’s 30 Under 30 which builds up the list positive female role models, and set up and fund formal organisations that raise awareness of the issues as well as challenge them. What are you doing to support women in technical roles your workplace?
With research showing that women taking 3 years off work to bring up children lose 38% of their earning power forever, it seems that managing your maternity leave is more important than you probably expected.
I asked the BCS Women’s group – a group of women working in science, technology and engineering – what advice they had for women returning to work after maternity leave. And the answers were both illuminating and a bit scary.
“Get all the help you can beg, borrow or steal, or can afford,” said Terry. “Make it as easy as possible. Whatever that means for you, an extra hour of child care a day, ready-made meals for kids (there are even some mildly healthy ones out there), or asking your neighbour to take the dog for a walk.” In Terry’s case, her daughter decided to stop sleeping the day she went back to work full-time and she stumbled through a year without sleep. A friend told her to hire a sleep consultant – an approach she fully recommends to anyone having difficulty getting their children to sleep.
“The one thing I found amazing when I went back to work was how very little had changed in the 8 months I had been off,” she said. “The same people, in the same meetings, talking about the same things. It took a few days or weeks, but I soon realised that I hadn’t forgotten everything I had known and that baby brain wasn’t quite all that was left rattling around in my head.”
“I realised that I hadn’t forgotten everything I had known.”
Getting up to speed at work is a challenge if you have been off for a while – and many UK mums take longer than the 8 months Terry took off work. “My company operated a return to work process,” explained Louise. “You had 3 months to work up to the hours you said you were returning to. For those three months they paid you for your full hours, so that stress was taken away.” When Louise returned to full-time work she found this policy very useful and she also managed to use outstanding leave and doing half days which meant she didn’t work a full week for a year.
“I think it’s also wise to have a plan for what you want to do,” she added. “When I submitted my plan it was accepted. Maybe I was lucky, but it forced me to think through what I wanted and to read all the policies relating to maternity leave and returning to work. I was also forced to evaluate what I wanted from do-ability perspective which so I had answers to potential questions.”
However, some women don’t appear to get the choices that they want. “It has got better for women in the last 25 years, because there is better enforcement of equality and diversity legislation,” said Judy. “For me in the late 1980’s it was very difficult to go back to work, and to work the hours I wanted/needed without impact to my career prospects.” For Judy, going back to her old company on part-time hours was impossible because there wasn’t that option for management level head office staff. “Although funnily enough,” she said, “it was OK for store staff.” She also felt that the travelling and long hours wouldn’t work with the times that local nurseries were available.
“I stayed at home for 6 years then was very lucky to get a full-time job locally in an organisation that worked flexi-time,” Judy said. “In my first week a devout Christian told me that my role was to be at home, and he didn’t get challenged.” Later on Judy became a single parent and changed to working part-time. But she still needed to be in the office every day for her team to have access to her. One manager repeatedly scheduled meetings 30 minutes before her going-home time and then complained that she wasn’t keeping up.
“When I had to have 3 months off for an operation I missed out on key training that was never rescheduled for me,” Judy said. “But, I survived it all…and so did my child. My advice is to always keep believing that it is your right to work if you want to. And it is better for your child/children for you to have a fulfilling life that sets an example for them, than to live a life of martyrdom which puts pressure on them to fulfil your aspirations.”
“Keep believing that it is your right to work if you want to.”
It isn’t just women who returned to work in the 80’s that found it difficult. Karen was forced to leave her job 4 years ago after it just wasn’t practical to go back to it. “I worked in a male dominated role in computer forensics and was working a 60 hour week and travelled internationally,” she said. “When I got pregnant I battled to be office based as I just couldn’t lug hefty kit around the world heavily pregnant.”
Karen took maternity leave with the option of going back to work, but she knew that going back to her old job would be a challenge. The commute into London from Essex, working long days, and having no family or friends to rely on made it impossible. “To make matters more difficult for me, a colleague 10 years younger than myself got pregnant a few months after me and returned to work full-time after 6 months,” she said. “They were relieved when I decided not to return as they didn’t know what role I would do.”
Karen is now desperate to get back to it. “My skills are only useful in London and I’ve no confidence anymore,” she said. “I feel I’ve gone from having a successful career to being a nobody just because I decided to have a child!”
If you do have the choice to go back to work, managing the lack of opportunity seems to be a common theme.
“The biggest challenge for me was not being offered the same opportunities as the full-timers,” said Marian. “Although not overt, that was nonetheless made quite clear to me. In order to avail myself of promotions and advancements I was told I had to return to full hours.” She was also told that she could only work part-time if her customers weren’t adversely affected.
“I was told I could only work part-time if my customers weren’t affected.”
Marian took a promotion and returned to working full-time recently. “I’m sure after a year at this new improved position I could apply for shorter hours again, and probably get them,” she said. “But then we’re back to being overlooked again when nice interesting opportunities come up. I just can’t quite see how to balance the two sides.”
Resist going full-time if you can is Marian’s advice. “Actually you will resist fairly easily if it is important enough,” she said. “At some point we have to weigh up the pros of having that time at home against the con (if it is a con) of not advancing where and when we’d like, and whichever is heavier on our soul then that is how we must jump.”
Going back to work can be difficult, and this idea from Queen’s University in Belfast may help make the move to the office less daunting. “Create a support group to link women going off on maternity leave with those recently returned from it,” suggested Lorna, a single parent of 14 years. If a formal support group isn’t possible, she recommends talking to someone else in the company who works part-time or who has a similar situation to you, even if they are in a different department.
Queen’s has a gold Athena Swan award for addressing gender equality. “Another idea from Queen’s is arranging a formal re-induction meeting with your line manager and others in your section,” Lorna said. “Asking for the dates of any team meetings to be planned well in advance will help you to make sure the meetings fall on the days that you are in work.”
“I only survived because I had a great child-minder.”
As well as sharing the lessons and best practice from the university, Lorna has her own experiences to draw on too. “I only survived because I had a great child-minder,” she said. “I had to travel all over Northern Ireland and she looked after my boys or had one of her grown-up children babysit for me on the evenings that I was working late.”
She said that women returners shouldn’t be afraid to be a ‘broken record’ about their needs. “It may take some time for the new situation to sink in,” she said.
Managing your return to work, if you have the option of returning at all, can be a huge challenge. In the end, the piece of advice that most struck a chord with me was from Louise. “You have to be happy with your choice,” she said. “If you aren’t it won’t work.”
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