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Women in project management: find a sponsor and take ownership of your career

Project management has traditionally been the preserve of the construction and heavy engineering industries. It now supports projects ranging from software development and new product launches, to business change initiatives and major sporting events such as the Olympic Games.

Increasingly project management is being used as a management tool across all industry sectors for all types of non-business as usual activities. It supports business in the need for technically complex products and processes, ever-shortening design-to-market windows for new products, the need for cross-functional expertise and the implementation of outsourcing agreements.

Despite the progress and increasing use of project management, women are still under-represented in project management. The 2011 Arras People Benchmark Report estimates that the proportion of UK female project managers remains under 30%. Henderson and Stackman report that female project managers are segregated to smaller, cheaper projects and spend more time working on virtual teams than men.

Are we being shy? Are women promoting their accomplishments enough in organisations? Typically, we are not self promoting: we do the job and expect to be noticed for a job well done, and we expect to be promoted on this basis. Many studies have identified that women need to build networks early in their careers to help them move up regardless of industry sector, so how do we do this without spending all of our free time out at networking events every evening of the week?

Who you know or what you know?
A 2011 US study found that women underestimate the role sponsorship can play in their advancement, and that those who do grasp its importance fail to cultivate it properly. Many women seem to feel that getting ahead based on who you know is a dirty tactic and not really playing fair. They believe that hard work alone will provide them with the rewards and recognition they deserve, whereas typically men do not seem to have this issue.

Technical and commercial knowledge are the hygiene factors here: these are the professional things that you have had to do, learn and experience in order to get you as far as you are. But these are only the entry level requirements; the next step up to senior level in organisations is a little different, and we can all do with a little help.

What exactly is a sponsor?
The terms mentor and sponsor are often used interchangeably. Many mentors ideas extend as far as providing advice and guidance, formulating a development plan to raise your profile at meetings, by networking or taking on high-profile projects.

In comparison, sponsorship is about your personal advocacy from men and women in positions of power in the organisation. Sponsors help you identify and take advantage of career opportunities. A mentor gives advice and guidance (typically having been there, done that, and got the t-shirt) but a sponsor will actively promote your profile and introduce you to development and promotion opportunities. In some formal development programs within organisations, a sponsor is held accountable for actively helping the development of the individual and is measured on the success of that individual. This means that often one of the defining criteria for a sponsor is how highly placed they are within an organisation, whether male or female.

By helping you find projects or job opportunities that will help you advance, sponsors take a more active role in your career development: they advocate for you, assist you in gaining visibility in your company and industry and fight to help you rise through the ranks, says Margot Carmichael Lester . This is just as true for project management as for other sectors.

Get prepared in order to benefit
Whether or not your organisation offers a formal sponsor program, how can you benefit from a sponsor?

1.Understand what you have to offer a sponsor
Recognise that this is a reciprocal relationship, and that you will need to give something back.Can you make a difference for your sponsor by getting noticed, making an impact and getting on? By actively advancing your interests and introducing you to development and promotion opportunities, sponsors put their own reputation and credibility on the line. Succeeding and getting ahead will reflect well on them as well as helping you, so ensure you make the relationship work for your sponsor as much as for you.

2.Understand what your sponsor has to offer you
Where do you find a sponsor? Look for an appropriate senior-level person who has the power, influence and position to open doors for you. This may not even be within your own organisation: it could be an influential figure in your field and industry. A sponsors sex doesnt matter, just how high he or she is in the organisation. Approach them with an offer (remember that if you dont ask, you dont get) and again recognise the reciprocity in the relationship.

3.Interview your sponsor
Dont be afraid to approach a number of sponsors: effectively interview them for the role.Some organisation programs match sponsors with individuals and simply expect the relationship to work; however, these relationships dont always work out for a variety of reasons. So hold a beauty parade of sponsors: set expectations upfront, agree the parameters, and accept that there will be a natural life to the relationship.

4.Know when to move on
Notice when the relationship starts to flag: can it be re-energised, or is it time to move on? Can you fire your sponsor if things do not go according to plan? Nobody likes to think that they have been taken advantage of purely for their network, power and influence base but there will come a time when you will both need to move on from the relationship. If you have agreed the rules and set expectations upfront, both parties are more likely to recognise that the relationship is no longer mutually advantageous and that it is better to close it off and move on.

I often suggest to women that if they want their career to match their ambition there is no room for modesty, and that looking for opportunities for self-promotion is a positive move. If a sponsor is willing to actively promote you and to introduce you to development and promotion opportunities, the door is then open to allow you to prove yourself.

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  1. Sarah Coleman
    Sarah Coleman 19 April 2012, 04:14 PM

    Many thanks for all your comments and feedback they are very much appreciated.   In my opinion, women don't like to ask for favours or trade on relationships but the reality is that all of us, throughout our careers, need to forge and cultivate relationships that are based on mutual interest.I think I am disappointed that anyone would perceive me as believing that it is women who should adapt and change to align to a predominantly male world.   From my experience, you have to be in the game to change the rules and those who are not in are marginalised in terms of influence and power base.  It is once you are in that you can start to actively change the culture and the rules of the game.   In my work developing senior women for board roles, I very much support the value of having a woman on the board behaving like a woman, and being welcomed for doing so rather than taking on the male traits, under the impression that it would help them to fit in.    Women provide a different perspective, a different approach, a different skill set but still aligned and focused on the business or project.  And it takes self-confidence and emotional resilience not to be swayed by peers, to retain integrity and authenticity. You might like to read further at: http://blog.businessevolution.co/2012/02/women-on-boards-a-male-in-female-clothing/Kind regards, Sarah

  2. Catherine Howie
    Catherine Howie 18 April 2012, 05:50 PM

    Sarah's observations of the way in which women handle their career and her recommendations as to how they should address it echo very closely those that have been made by both men and women about a lack of women in the board room.  Her advice in this respect however places the emphasis very much on women to adapt and change to align what they do with the 'unwritten rules' that have already been made by a predominantly male world.  I would suggest therefore that it's equally important to also think very carefully about how much you might want to adapt to these rules and change who you are for the sake of your career, including what the consequences of remaining in such an environment might also be.Other questions might be worth asking; e.g. are other people actually working as effectively and efficiently as you if they are busy courting sponsorship / promoting themselves?  Is doing such a thing accepted by those around you as being part of your day job / route to a more senior level or not?Sponsorship within the contex of a structured programme may be the way to go, it can however still  lead to suggestions of favouritism and until the number of men and women in senior roles become routinely more balanced, potentially favouritism of a sexual nature too.  I suspect that unless the established 'male' business model also changes and a more objective evaluation of the qualities that women have to offer introduced into it, there may never be a balance in numbers of men and women in some disciplines and industries, and that given women's other major role in life and what most currently sacrifice for the sake of a career, I am being realistic.  Looking for businesses that have made clear strides to support family life, put women in the board rooom, or where there are significantly more women in senior positions (PM or otherwise) may be another equally valid, progressive and less stressful way to successfully meet your career aspirations, unless of course you actually enjoy being a pioneer, and pushing the (proverbial) elephant uphill!Read more on the subject at http://www.europeanpwn.net/files/mckinsey_2007_gender_matters.pdf

  3. Laura McCullough
    Laura McCullough 13 April 2012, 12:41 PM

    A fascinating article and one I have really taken to heart. I have to disagree with Mason that there are "things we women don't understand about project management". Unfortunately it is comments like that which can hold women in underrepresented sectors back. There are certainly some things which we Project Managers can do better. Men and women operate differently in the business environment and we all have a lot to learn from each other.

  4. Mason Hillen
    Mason Hillen 12 April 2012, 07:24 PM

    This a great idea and your reasonings make a lot of sense. I think that there are things we women don't understand about project management and no matter who we are there is still going to be a lot to learn.  Why is it that sometimes we need a little help in promoting our projects and promoting ourselves so a sponsor is helpful to guide us to where we need to be.

  5. Shaun Conway
    Shaun Conway 13 June 2017, 05:49 AM

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