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

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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.

Sarah Coleman

Posted by Sarah Coleman on 3rd Apr 2012

About the Author

Sarah Coleman is a Chartered Project Professional, Fellow and former Trustee of APM. She has over 30 years’ experience of commerce, projects, programmes, transformation and strategic initiatives across public and private sectors and in central government in the UK and internationally.  She is an experienced project and programme leader, and works with the Infrastructure and Projects Authority as an Associate Director.  Sarah is also a Major Projects Reviewer for the Government's Major Projects Portfolio.  

Sarah is a Visiting Fellow at Cranfield University.  She is also a Published author and researcher ('Project Leadership', APM Publishing 2018; 'Organisational Change Explained', Kogan Page 2017; 'Project Leadership', Gower 2015; 'Dealing with Power and Politics' in Business Analysis and Leadership, Kogan Page 2013; contributed to 'APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition', APM Publishing 2019).  In 2014 she relaunched the APM's National Conference for Women in Project Management and led on the event for 5 years.  

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