When I embarked on my career, the Spice Girls were taking over the world with Girl Power; girls were outperforming boys in all levels of education*, creating an ‘attainment gender gap’, change was in the air. I used the term ‘embarked on my career’, in truth I had taken a temping role to earn some cash whilst I pondered what I wanted to do with my life.
Between photocopying, faxing and running errands I would chat away to my colleague Alan who sat at the neighbouring desk. Alan would plan his impending retirement whilst I would plan my Friday nights. Reflecting on the time, I recognise that in many ways he was forward thinking, and I am very thankful for his keen observations, such as time management, organisational skills and ability to communicate. Whilst he laughed at my Friday night shenanigans, he recognised I had the skills, capability and personality suited to working in the challenging environment of project management. He swiftly took me under his wing and pointed me in the direction of a career in projects. Alan saw me as a leader, a delegator, a future project professional.
As I grew into my career, I remained positive until a perspective-shifting interview in 2012. Despite the imposing board room table separating me from the two men asking questions, the interview felt conversational and there was even a smile or two. That was until the lead interviewer said, ‘I probably should not ask, and you do not have to answer if this is too personal. Are you planning to have children?’
It took one question to transform me from being viewed as an outstanding candidate to an uncommitted baby making burden. And it most certainly did not come across that I could be an outstanding candidate, well-rounded individual who happens to have a uterus and is committed to work as well any future children. I was no longer a leader, a delegator or a project professional, I was only a woman, because of course, even if a man did or was planning to have children, I’m certain that question wouldn’t be asked.
What shocked me most was the lead interviewer felt authorised to ask what he clearly knew to be an inappropriate question, safely under the belief there would be no ramifications for asking a question either from his colleague or the organisation in which he worked. (Under the Equality Act 2010, you are not allowed to ask a candidate whether they are married, have children or plan to have children in a job interview).
Prior to the interview I had experienced my share of bias and negative behaviour, but I considered myself to be very capable of taking on the role of project manager and was interested in the possibility. But this was in the day when men still earned significantly more than women in the same roles, and prior to legislation defining what constituted sexual harassment. The question I found myself asking was ‘what is the likelihood that I will drain my reserves of resilience to be in the role? And as a result, have limited reserves to meet the needs of the role?’ No two projects are the same, the sense of team camaraderie, having ambitious targets and stretching yourself are all qualities I love about working in a project environment, but let us not overlook that working on a project requires significant resilience.
Put off, I remained in planning, where I was able to influence from the right hand of the project manager.
Last year I was again looking for a new position and during the interview I shared that my parents were in their twilight years, and there is an increasing need for me to lean in and support. The difference? Psychological safety existed in that interview from the offset – I knew was being assessed for my ability to do the job and not my potential childbearing or care giving commitments. They saw me beyond being a woman in project management and fortunately, times have changed significantly.
There is still a long way to go to achieve more equality and create truly diverse and inclusive work environments. Nonetheless, there are significantly more women represented in the profession from senior management to apprentices than in the days of Girl Power with the Spice Girls. We have fought to be here and, from Alan to numerous male (and female) colleagues, I have been fortunate to have many champions who have recognised my potential, and supported and promoted me, for which I am extremely grateful.
Today, if I were offered the opportunity to take a project management role, the potential discrimination or prejudice wouldn’t factor in my decision. Ideally, that prejudice wouldn’t be there, but even if it was, I’m determined to change outdated views and prove that women can drive their own success.
Project management is an evolving, varied, challenging role and needs women to keep moving the dial. We are women in project management, but we are also more than just women in project management: we are leaders, we are accomplished and we are successful. Whether you have taken a career gap, are looking for a new challenge or just starting out, join in with the project management community to find your next role. Join the Women in Project Management SIG.
*National Association for Able Children in Education, Neil Jones, 2020
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