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Discrimination isn’t behind the profession’s gender gap. Let’s create roles women really want

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Women are naturally drawn to project management, in my opinion. We have organisational skills in our DNA. Throughout my career, I’ve worked with many women who I’ve encouraged to become project managers because they have the inherent skills.

It can’t be denied however that most people who work on projects, programmes and portfolios are men. APM data indicates roughly 70% of people working in our profession are male. At the highest level, more than twice as many project professionals in senior management or director level roles are men. Furthermore, APM’s upcoming 2023 Salary and Market Trends Survey shows the profession has a gender pay gap of 24%.

So does our profession have a ‘problem’ with gender diversity?

Personally, I don’t believe so. While the profession as a whole might not be as gender-equal as we want, if you look at some other professions, they have gender pay gaps that are much bigger.

On the issue of seniority, it’s about asking the right questions. It’s important not only to ask ‘how many senior leaders are women?’ but also ‘what do women actually want?’ I did a poll of middle managers in my organisation recently to ask how they felt about applying for higher level jobs. What came back is that a significant proportion didn’t want a job with a high level of stress, due to several factors. What’s coming through from this generation is that they only want work to be one-third of their lives.

In my opinion, the underlying reason for the gender divide in the project profession is not that women are being discriminated against on the basis of their gender. We’ve all heard tales of bias, but I think those are a thing of the past. Mums and dads who work in male-dominated sectors like engineering are actively encouraging their daughters to join. If parents are supporting their kids to get into project management, that shows the confidence people have that these sectors treat people fairly.

It’s more to do with creating work environments that women feel they want to be part of.

Culture is a big part of this. It’s true that a lot of people in high level roles do a lot of discretionary work out of hours. That’s part of the UK’s working culture. If you go to other countries, senior people will often diarise discretionary work and also seek renumeration. That’s something that I want to see become part of our culture in this country.

Then there’s the workplace environment. If you look at construction sites for example, those can be incredibly exciting for some women, but others may perceive them as quite hostile.

People are really affected by the environment they work in. To work effectively, they need to believe their environment is collaborative and inclusive. They need to believe in their organisation’s values. Pre-COVID, a lot of organisations paid lip service to that. Now they have to live it. A recent report by McKinsey & Company on women in the workplace highlighted the importance of communicating what it means to have an inclusive culture, and of building this thinking into company values.

If we take APM’s values as an example – progressive, thoughtful, warm and excellent – these aren't just nice-sounding words, but a reflection of what our members and employees say they feel about us. Each value contains associated behaviours that are communicated to employees so they can deliver on them. McKinsey identified this type of approach in their report as one that will help make workplaces more inclusive.

Another positive change to the work environment has been the emergence of flexible working. This has been hugely beneficial to people with caring responsibilities (who are overwhelmingly women). Organisations need to ensure this doesn’t become restricted to certain roles and functions in a business, so that women working on projects and programmes can benefit too.

So there are changes that need to happen. These have to be driven by people already working in the profession and behaviours role modelled.

Changes that can encourage gender diversity in the workplace

No matter what your gender, if you’re already working in the project profession, there are changes you can make to encourage greater diversity.

  • Be more conversation-led when making recruitment decisions – When it comes to job-hunting, men are much more willing to give something a go if they don’t fit the job description 100%. You never really know what people are like until you get to know them. If you’re involved with recruitment, you’ll have more success getting the right people into your organisation if you avoid judging suitability on skills and qualifications alone.
  • Encourage women in your professional network to join the profession – It almost sounds like pyramid selling, but if each person in a project role can recruit one or two more women, then they do the same and so on, that can really help.
  • Collaborate with APM – whatever sector you work in, consider individual or corporate membership. APM has done a lot of work championing women in project management (WiPM) profession, from its WiPM Specific Interest Group (which anyone can follow), to its annual WiPM conference (which anyone can attend).
  • Recognise men who are supporting equality and diversity – this is important, because there are a lot of harmful stereotypes about men’s attitudes to women in the workplace that aren’t true. In my experience, men are doing a lot to encourage women into the profession. That should be welcomed.

At the end of the day it’s about being bold and encouraging others to be bold. It’s not always about seismic change. If everyone makes small changes, that adds up.

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