International women's day

Time for greater emphasis on IT Project WOMANagement?

Guest blog by Nicol Cutts – Stoneseed Head of Project Management       

March 8th is International Women’s day.  Aptly, adverts for the PMI UK Chapter, International Women’s Day webinar: “The modern woman in leadership “dropped into my inbox at the same time as a reply to a question that I’d asked a CIO friend whose organisation has consistently high IT project delivery success rates.

I had asked this CIO for the secret to their success. 

“The women on our team,” was the reply.

To be honest, at first, I thought that this was a glib remark about ‘ability to multi-task’ or a cliched observation about ‘bossiness, pushing tasks through’. In fact, it was a genuine, firmly held belief that the team’s output had improved as the gender mix had evened out. More than a belief actually, the results clearly prove it: success rates improved as more women joined the team.

Coincidence? Is there any evidence that women make better project managers? Sort of! Back in 2007, a survey of U.S. project managers revealed that female PMs outperformed male PMs in key areas and that women PMs abandoned fewer projects than their male counterparts.

But do women really make better project managers or does a more diverse mix just make for a better team? And what do you do if there are gaps of any kind within your team?

The tech gender split hasn’t always been like this. Women once made up 80% of the computer industry. These days less than 20% are women and my own experience tells me that, in IT Project Management, the male/female split is around this mark too. Indeed, in 2015, it was estimated that somewhere between just 17 and 30% per cent of project managers were women.

A brief history of women in Tech and the greatest IT Project EVER.

I suppose it started with Bletchley Park which I once heard a radio announcer call “the greatest IT Project ever”. The work done there shortened the second world war by months and saved between 14 and 21 million lives, so when I compare these deliverables to some of the ones I stress over these days, I think “the greatest IT Project ever” is about right!! Although it is the men, like Alan Turing, who often are remembered, around 8,000 women were employed there during World War II and, rightly, in recent years, it is the women of Bletchley Park have had their work recognised. Various books, TV documentaries and the ITV drama ‘The Bletchley Circle’ have celebrated them and David Kenyon, research historian at Bletchley Park Trust said: “Bletchley Park could not have functioned without its female employees”.

The computer industry workforce remained largely female dominated for decades, most of the early coders were women and jobs in the tech industry were seen as clerical functions.

Marie Hicks, a British tech industry historian, talking on BBC radio programme “Jobs For The Boys” says, “In the early days, it hadn’t yet professionalised, there was this idea that it was rote, and women were paid less, so girl hours were obviously cheaper than man-hours.”

However, things started to change as emphasis switched to the potential power of the tech jobs. As Marie Hicks explains, “You got to lay out the system that was going to be used to help make the government run or help make a bank run or help make an insurance company run.” Suddenly there were exciting career paths available and the men started to get interested.

Women increasingly found it harder to be heard higher up in tech circles. Tech entrepreneur Dame Stephanie Shirley had to adopt her family nickname “Steve” to be taken seriously! Her tech company would one day employ over 8,000 people, a similar number to those working at Bletchley Park.  

Women for decades reported a culture of harassment and techno-chauvinism even within global tech giants.

And that’s how we find ourselves where we are today, as I say, somewhere between 17–30% per cent of project managers are women.

So, let’s let that sink in:

a) women are great at delivering IT Projects;
b) less than 30% (actually probably less than 20%) of project managers are women;
c) IT Project failure rates remain high.

I can’t help wondering if, as an industry, we may be missing something here.  

I asked for some feedback from clients, colleagues and friends. Women seemed to have greater strengths in four key areas and this anecdotal evidence can be backed up with various studies.

A) Interpersonal and non-verbal communication –
Both key skills for project managers. “An examination of gender differences in managerial communication of project managers” claimed that women tended to have greater strengths than men in this area. (Snyder D., McLaurin J. R., Little B. & Taylor R., 1996)

B) Client Relations – “Clients and stakeholders take bad news from me better than my male colleagues (who have had some right stand up rows),” a female PM messaged me. In fact, Nath’s (2000) research with project managers showed that that being a woman made it easier to gain access to clients, women got on better with clients, and clients were more willing to talk to women than men, and more willing to take bad news from women.

C) Teamwork – A UK study of women project managers concluded that “women have significantly more of a team management style than do men, characterized by a high regard for people and high regard for task, they are less traditional and more visionary in their approach to business, and they may have a more heightened sense of awareness and a greater sense of cultural incongruence and gender exclusion’.

D) Empathy – Women do seem more sensitive, caring and empathetic to their staff than men. There is evidence to support too, these women are “more sensitive in caring for staff and showing concern than males. They are more capable in interpreting problems and bringing order to their area and are better able to maintain tight control.” One message I received read, “When I was on leave following a bereavement, I got two communications from work. Flowers from a female project manager and a text asking a project related question from a senior male project leader.”

So, do women make better project leaders? I diplomatically answer this by saying that ‘great project leaders make great project leaders’, I.e., it doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman if you’ve got it – you’ve got it.

I think it’s a balance of different views, experiences and insights that creates great teams, not which loo you use.

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