The project profession has evolved significantly in recent years with an ever-increasing expansion of tools and techniques, alongside recognition of varying leadership styles. Whilst this is positive, the profession is still behind when it comes to representation. It is estimated that just over 30% of the project profession identifies as female. Few project professionals belong to a minority group, the APM 2021 Salary and Market Trends survey showed 15% of the profession identify as BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic). As an ethnic minority woman in the profession, the day-to-day reality of navigating delivery environments where sometimes nobody in the room remotely resembles you, can be complex.
It was only very recently when I moved into a more senior leadership position that I began to embrace the intersectionality which makes up my identity. Becoming more comfortable in my skin has allowed me to operate with more authority, which in turn has helped me in navigating difficult situations. It is well documented that project teams benefit immensely from leaders who are not afraid to bring their authentic selves to work. Authenticity promotes honest conversations and can help build rapport; respect for individual differences allows everyone to bring their strengths to the table. Embracing who you are can be liberating. However, there are times where this can be incredibly uncomfortable.
The importance of allyship
I have experience of incidences when it has become extremely obvious that I am ‘different’ and not in a positive way. There have been frustrating situations where stakeholders immediately presume I must be the most junior person in the room, rather than the person leading the project team. These encounters can be embarrassing for all involved because internal biases can cause serious, external problems.
I’m fortunate that throughout most of my career I haven’t experienced a lot of discrimination or racism. There was however one environment where this was a regular occurrence, and I felt the only resolution was to leave a job I enjoyed. This chimes with the experiences of other ethnic minority people in the UK workforce. However, such incidents can be minimised if an allyship approach exists in the workplace.
Allyship and being an advocate for team members from minority groups can create a truly diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace. Project environments where diversity and inclusion exist, are deemed to be more innovative, collaborative and teams deliver with increasing impact.
However, fostering such cultures can be difficult if the environment is not open to ideas, or safe spaces don’t exist.
The difficulty of challenging behaviours
I was once approached by a colleague who said that their biggest difficulty in being an effective ally was knowing when and how to challenge unacceptable behaviours. Their hesitation came from a fear of being applied a label of being ‘difficult’ to work with if they were to speak up during situations where they witnessed behaviours which made them uncomfortable. It was their belief that speaking up could negatively impact future work opportunities.
In such scenarios, it is our responsibility as project leaders to create environments where we embrace challenge. By empowering the team to share ideas, avoiding blame, and encouraging open conversations we can shape cultures where it is truly comfortable to challenge. Consistently advocating the benefits of safe spaces to those more senior than us, can lead to wider positive organisational change.
The smallest actions can make a difference
If you’re starting out your career, it’s natural to be hesitant in challenging the status quo in case it threats your progression or leads to negative feedback during performance development conversations. In scenarios where you are an ally or in a junior position, if challenging during a team meeting or wider forum appears too difficult, don’t underestimate the difference you can make with a one-on-one conversation.
If you witness a scenario which you believe wasn’t acceptable, speak to the person you think could be negatively impacted and ask how they feel. Looking after each other in a team, providing support and building shared understanding ensures wellbeing. A conversation where you ‘check in’ with someone can make a massive difference to helping them feel valued and negate any feelings of exclusion.
Five easy ways to become a better diversity and inclusion ally
- Bring yourself to work. If you’re confident in who you are, and what makes you, you, others will feel safe to do so as well
- Empower your team to share ideas; listen to them and avoid blame. Open conversations and creating good rapport amongst team members can prevent groupthink and reshape the culture
- Speak up if something doesn’t feel right. You can do this right away, or later, one-on-one, with the person who may be impacted
- Reflect on your own biases. Regularly question your own beliefs and whether you have stereotypes about people that aren’t true
- As you develop your career, take others with you. Mentor and sponsor individuals, particularly those who may be at a disadvantage
Whilst as project professionals we often focus on the ‘hard skills’ of planning, scheduling, risk management we should never ignore the ‘softer’ traits such as the importance of team building. It is imperative we continue to embrace, promote, and celebrate our individual differences. The various traits who make us who we are, should be viewed as a strength rather than a threat. Fostering cultures where this is possible should be both a source of pride and a responsibility which we should all welcome.
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