On occasions I have found myself in discussions, usually with other women, where the issues of glass ceilings, discrimination, lack of recognition, exclusion, unconscious bias, institutional bias and many similar challenges are tabled.
I can honestly say that I'm not aware of having experienced any substantial barriers that negatively impacted my 40-year long career. Quite the opposite in fact.
In a recent exploration of intersectionality, I was rightly reminded that I am a white woman of privilege who had the benefit of supportive parents and a good education (please don’t judge me). So, have I been really lucky, or have I made my luck? Of course, it is a blend of the two, and I have certainly encountered some great mentors and been told some inspirational stories that helped me along the way.
Whilst I have been fortunate, I have also worked very hard, been intentional, mindful and creative in finding opportunities where I can succeed. However, my career has not been a ‘walk in the park’, and I have felt an unwelcome outsider many times, encountered opposition, been close to overwhelm juggling work and small children, and have been told I am not capable (I proved them wrong!). And this is all before my imposter syndrome clicks into gear doing its very own little war-dance trying to get me to play small.
I've worked as a project manager or a programme manager, either as an employee or a contractor, and have led 27 change initiatives, in 16 different organisations, across six different industry sectors, and several countries.
I spent the first 16 years of my career as one of a very few women working in the global HQ of a large chemical manufacturing company. My colleagues were well-educated, bright and scarily intelligent. Many had been to public school and good universities. I couldn't engage with my peers or my seniors because I couldn't talk about rugby or football, nor was I part of their eminent networks. I felt out of place. I was that working class girl who'd been to a poorly resourced comprehensive school and had fought her way to university for a degree in applied zoology.
Luckily for me, one of the consultants supporting us on a European supply chain transformation project, Richard Bhanap, took me under his wing. He helped me reframe my outlook and to learn to love being an outsider. He helped me change my mindset and begin to see my feeling of being different and separate from the group as an opportunity to stand out and shine. He held up a mirror to me and described me as Andrex – soft, strong and extra-long. I took this in the way it was meant - a massive compliment and a metaphor I could identify with. I do lead from a place of soft power, I am a strong project manager, and I have developed the tenacity and resilience to go the distance.
Not long after this, I heard the story of the experiment where fleas were put in a glass beaker, and they all jumped out. More fleas were added however this time a lid was placed on the beaker. After a while the lid was removed, and the fleas all remained in the beaker. They had been conditioned not to jump any higher than the false ceiling they were given.
Being a slightly sceptical applied zoologist, I searched for the scientific report of this experiment without success. However, true or not, it is a good metaphor on the risks of creating limiting boundaries for ourselves following unpleasant or uncomfortable situations we experience. I realised I have a choice in this challenging world when it comes to sticking my head above the parapet. As a project manager with transferable skills and the ability to move sectors, I can decide how much to bend myself out of shape or tolerate discomfort for the sake of my career.
I decided to learn to become comfortable feeling uncomfortable. We grow and learn most when we are outside our comfort zone just like the story of the lobster. This amazing animal grows to the point where it becomes very uncomfortable before bursting out from its exoskeleton (external shell) and finding shelter, whilst its new exoskeleton grows and hardens. I know that having the confidence and the courage to live in that level of discomfort has helped me grow and develop, and have far greater opportunities as a result.
I encourage everyone reading this to ask yourself whether your fears and assumptions are shaping the lens you use to frame yourself within the world? Whilst being mindful of our very real-life experiences to date, let’s not be defined by them. Let’s support one another to become more comfortable being uncomfortable so that we grow. And let’s continue to challenge the institutionalised bias, unconscious bias and boundaries ever-present within our society.
With thanks to the lessons nature teaches us, especially from the humble lobster and the unloved flea.
You may also be interested in the APM Podcast episode, Women in Project Management: How to make it to the top