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New ways of working are breaking down barriers for women in projects

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In the latest in our series of articles about issues relevant to women in the project profession, we speak with Jo Roberts, Head of Strategy, High Speed Rail Group, about progression opportunities for project experts and how organisations can drive positive change.

Jo RobertsYou’d be hard pushed to find someone who embodies the concept of ‘project professional’ better than Jo Roberts. With nearly two decades of experience in a career that has seen her work for some of the world’s most recognised organisations, Jo has worked her way up from an assistant-level role to Head-of and Project Director level roles for major government departments. With such a career path, it seems unlikely that the issue of career progression would be a concern. However, Jo has experienced first-hand how careers can be put on pause; often for reasons that disproportionately affect women.

“I’ve been working on projects for 18 years, starting at the bottom and working my way up,” she explained. “I feel that the last six years of my career have been really stagnant. And that’s because I had a child.”

There is a well-reported gender care gap in the UK. In 2019, insurance company AIG Life reported the findings of a study involving more than 3,000 working adults, which showed that:

  • Women are nearly three times more likely to have to take time off work to look after children
  • 74% of women are the main carer for children, taking short or long periods off work to look after family, compared with just 26% of men
  • 76% of women believe they will be the main carer for an elderly relative compared to 62% of men. However, the research also found that just 33% of women who take time out of the workplace to be a carer plan to return to full-time jobs, compared to 59% of men.

New ways of working that have emerged since the COVID-19 pandemic are making it easier for people to work flexibly. Jo feels such innovations will be the key to overcoming barriers to progression that still disproportionately affect women.

She said: “When I had my son, I went back to work, but it was hard. If he was ill, the nursery would call me, even though my husband was available. I went down to working four days a week in the end. That was pre-COVID and it didn’t really work. I was always playing catch up.

“Not every organisation was open to flexible working then. Of course the pandemic was terrible for many reasons, but one of the silver linings from it is that it levelled the playing field. Flexible and remote working options meant I could still see my son at breakfast and bedtime, and I could work in the evenings after he had gone to sleep if I needed to.”

While more employers have started offering some degree of flexible working as standard post-pandemic, Jo would like to see more project roles be offered on a part-time or job-share basis. She said: “I still don’t think there is enough in project and programme delivery around job sharing. People aren’t able to choose to go part time and share those roles.

“There’s something around being a programme manager on a really big project and still being able to do three or four day weeks, while still delivering the project. That’s achievable. But there’s still a perception that you can’t be part time and be at the helm.

“The traditional working model is really ingrained among employers and within working culture.”

Jo doesn’t believe this view will persist long-term, however. As well as changes driven by necessity during the pandemic, the evolving preferences and expectations of the next generation of project professionals – as well as greater awareness of the needs of neurodivergent individuals – mean that cultural change is happening more organically.

“Change will come with the younger generation,” said Jo.

“For younger women who don’t have children or caring responsibilities, I don’t think their generation wants to work the traditional five-day week. Apprentices I work with would prefer to work four days a week and have more quality time away from work.

“The traditional working model is really ingrained, but some people don’t want to do that, or can’t for reasons of neurodivergence. They may need a longer break from work.”

But how (and when) can organisations implement such changes? In Jo’s opinion, it isn’t dependent on first achieving an equal gender split in the c-suite. Instead, employers have an opportunity now to make their workplaces more attractive to prospective project employees, including women. This can present a competitive advantage at a time when organisations may find it difficult to attract applicants through higher salaries.

“It’s not about all CEO’s being women,” Jo commented. “It’s about letting teams be flexible. My current director is incredible. If people need to work flexibly, she’s fine with that. She herself has caring responsibilities, so she demonstrates a lot of empathy.”

While there’s no doubt that changes such as hybrid working or four-day work weeks have enabled women to have greater work/life balance, might there be a risk that people working in these ways could be passed over for advancement in favour of those working in more traditional ways? While Jo does feel the five-day week is well-ingrained, she predicts employers won’t be so attached to it in the near future as norms evolve.

She said: “If someone is working a four-day week as standard, then people taking decisions on progression opportunities will see that as standard.

“I don’t see any real reason why it can’t work. It’s more of a cultural issue.”

So what’s Jo’s message to the younger generation coming through the ranks?

“There’s an old adage: ‘don’t ask, don’t get’,” she said. “If you go into an interview and explain ‘this is my preferred way of working’ you’re in with a chance of getting what you need right off the bat. Let people know if you won’t or can’t be available at certain times, or won’t answer emails after certain hours.

“I don’t see that there are limits to progression from that kind of approach. If there are, you’re at the wrong company.”


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