What’s Holding Women Back in Project Management?

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By Jen Skrabak, PfMP, PMP

As a woman who’s worked for the past 18-plus years in project, program and portfolio management, as well as building and leading enterprise project management offices for Fortune 500 companies, I wanted to address the topic of women in project management.

In the United States, women hold 38 percent of manager roles, according to a study conducted by McKinsey in partnership with LeanIn.Org. And while women have made gains in some STEM fields, particularly healthcare and life sciences, they are underrepresented in many others. U.S. women hold 25 percent of computer jobs, and just 14 percent of those in engineering, according to the Pew Research Center.

In project management, as in other professions, women earn less than men. For project managers in the United States, men earn an average US$11,000 more annually than women, according to PMI’s Earning Power: Project Management Salary Survey.

Historically, women have been pigeonholed in project administrative or project coordination roles instead of project management roles, and the key question is “Why?”

We’ve all heard that we need to “think differently,” and as Sheryl Sandberg advocated in her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, women need to raise their hands, project confidence, be at the table and physically lean in to make themselves heard. The dictionary definition of “lean in” means to press into something. So when faced with an overwhelming force such as wind, you need to lean toward the force rather than away in order to not be blown away. 

“Lean in” can be a metaphor for asserting yourself as a leader in project management. As women, we may be held back by self-doubt, our speaking voice or body language that conveys a lack of self-confidence. The advice here is not limited to women; people of color can “lean in,” too.

There are three key cognitive biases that may hold women back in project management. The key is to recognize that these exist, and work to build awareness while overcoming them:

  1. Affinity Bias: We naturally like people who are like us, including those who are the same gender or ethnicity. Men tend to be over-represented in leadership positions and in industries where project management predominates, such as IT, engineering, manufacturing and construction. It is natural that men would prefer to work with and report to people like themselves.  
  2. Inter-Group Bias: This can occur with many groups, such as people from a certain geography (cities or regions), university, culture or other characteristics such as an interest in sports. We naturally feel an instant connection to people with whom we share the same background or a common characteristic, versus those with whom we don’t have anything in common.
  3. Confirmation Bias: A widely held belief is that women appear to not be as confident as men. And when people believe this, they embrace information or experiences that confirm that belief. Research has shown that women are usually expected to be nice and warm, instead of assertive, direct and confident.

By understanding and recognizing these biases, we can work to defeat them. I’ll explore these topics more in my next post, which will coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8. How do you combat biases in the workplace?

Posted by Jen Skrabak on: February 25, 2019 11:17 PM | Permalink

Comments (11)

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Hi Jen Skrabak ,

Good Points covered in your post. i am completely agree on this.
I would like to add some points:-
1- Outdated norms and biases
2- Unbalanced org charts
3- Unaddressed family stress

good sharing

In a previous company, financial information for all project managers in the PMO was sent to me. It showed the salaries of myself and my peers (many of whom were men). The salaries for all men were higher - significantly higher. I notified the Director this information was included in the report. He asked me to delete the file and apologized for sending the information. I tried not to let the new details affect my work, and be grateful for my job and my current salary which up until the moment of new information seemed fair, but it was something hard to erase and at times was troubling. I do lean in and I do work hard. I am thorough and accurate in my work. We've come a long way as women in the workplace and have fought hard for our place at the table. I believe salaries will reflect this in the future. I choose to believe this!

Thanks for sharing your experience Lori. I agree with you!

One interesting note is that California (along with Delaware, Massachusetts, Oregon, New York City) have laws banning employers from asking about salary in interviews or job applications. The primary purpose is to reduce the gender wage gap; if women have historically been paid less than men, then basing a new job's salary on the previous salary is a way to perpetuate the gap. I think laws like this do make strides in helping women earn equal wages.

Very interesting and eye opener..

Thank you for the article. It is maddening that there is still bias and wage gaps based on gender. We have to continue to work on enacting laws that ban employers from asking about salary in all states. I too am a hard worker and just as smart and capable as a man, why shouldn't I be paid the same or more if I deserve it!

Good article. Thanks for sharing. The bias need to change.

Thanks for sharing, it is necessary to constantly challenge our biases.

It's their biological structure that makes he to better job for which she is created

Not sure what the reply from Mr. Sharif means.

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