Leveling the Playing Field: Women in Project Management

COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted women in terms of workforce participation. Learn how organizations can reverse this trend in ways that benefit all employees, and why project management is a great career option for women.

Written by Brantlee Underhill • 4 March 2021


Image by Victoria Heath on Unsplash

A recent NPR story grabbed my full attention: "In September, an eye-popping 865,000 women left the U.S. workforce—four times more than men."

Virtually no one has been untouched by the fall-out of COVID-19, but it’s clear that women have been disproportionately impacted in terms of their workforce participation. Such a large-scale departure of women from the office should be of grave concern on many fronts—the mental, physical, social and economic health impact as well as the risk to decades of progress around gender equality.

Further research from firms like McKinsey—as seen in their Women in the Workplace 2020 report—has found that women, and particularly women of color, have been more likely to be laid off or furloughed during the crisis. This trend has only exacerbated challenges that working women already face, including cultural expectations on commitments in the home, like caring for family members and household labor (the so-called “double shift”). McKinsey noted that today more than one in four women are contemplating downsizing their careers or departing the workplace altogether.

Diversity Leads to a Greater ROI

To be clear, this isn’t a matter of men versus women; we all benefit when our organizations foster diversity and a range of perspectives and experiences. After all, workplaces that are more supportive towards women with families also benefit the many men who also prioritize playing a more active role as parents, as well as those without families who gain from work-life balance and flexibility.

The returns on diversity are as true for project teams as they are for the C-Suite; the Boston Consulting Group found in 2017 that companies reporting higher than average diversity on their management teams saw 45% greater total revenue than laggards. Yet we continue to see only modest improvement in women’s representation in corporate America, reflecting similar trends around the globe.

There are clear steps that organizations can take to create more inclusive cultures that attract top talent with diverse teams, provide equal opportunities for leadership and development and reverse the talent drain of women leaving the workforce.

A greater focus on work-life integration. Talent is increasingly gravitating to organizations offering greater flexibility and trust in terms of how employees schedule their days and get work done. Companies fixated on how many hours a week someone spends in a specific chair in a specific building are at a disadvantage. As Rachel Thomas, the CEO of Lean In has shared, organizations don't retain talent by refusing to adjust as their employees’ lives and goals change. Supervisors can meet employees where they are at, and an example of this is to avoid scheduling meetings during designated periods of time in order to help employees manage their non-work commitments, like virtual schooling or caretaking.

Drop some of the formalities. I think the past year will have long-term effects of normalizing different views on work-life integration, including expectations around how formal we are in our day-to-day interactions with colleagues. A year ago, it might have been taboo to have kids or dogs running through the background of a video call. Today, it’s par for the course—even endearing, as we gain a look inside the homes of our colleagues in a way we would have never expected in 2019 or earlier. It’s now time to apply that sense of empathy and channel it into concrete policies that champion greater work-life integration and well-being.

Start with “why.” No matter what you are doing in life—whether it’s starting a new meditation practice or embarking on a career change—it’s crucial for individuals to have a sense of purpose and reason for doing so. Defining your “why” enables you to align your actions to that centering point. And the same applies to organizations. Cultivating a shared understanding of purpose begins with employers becoming very clear with their employees and stakeholders about the organization’s underlying mission. Why does the organization exist and what value is it bringing to the broader world? As an employee, how does my own “why” align with my employer’s mission?

As much time as we spend at work, we don’t live our lives in bubbles detached from the world around us. We’ve seen leaders this year increasingly speaking out—and holding space to dialogue internally with their teams—on social issues like the environment and racial justice. While some leaders may be inclined to leave these issues squarely outside of corporate communications, that choice of action—or lack thereof—can be tone-deaf for organizations to not acknowledge what is happening in society and to see how these issues impact the mental health and well-being of employees. We are all connected; get to know your people and what drives them.

Set boundaries. While we are all connected, we may argue that we are too connected…to screens and wi-fi. Time knows no boundary between professional and personal spaces, and this can increase the likelihood of burnout, physically and mentally. As employees live in front of a glowing computer screen from morning through night, potentially disrupting our circadian rhythms, our best performance is at risk both at work and in the home. Organization leaders must strive to encourage employees to set boundaries for themselves, committing to what needs to be achieved that day and letting go of the guilt to step away from the screen. I personally believe that if we don’t care for ourselves, how can we care for other people, including our family, housemates, co-workers and teams? Take the time for self-care and know when you need to get your work done. Ask for help if you need the support.

Opportunities in Leading Projects and Driving Change

Just as organizations need to cultivate greater flexibility, it’s true that talent needs to be more agile today as well—ready to continue learning new skills and considering different types of challenges.

For women seeking rewarding professional opportunities, roles in project management should be at the top of the list for consideration. The world is going through profound change right now as every organization strives to stay relevant—and project managers are uniquely positioned to make sure change is implemented, as well as effectively manage risk, an increasingly important consideration given health and safety concerns today.

I’ve learned over the last two decades of working with PMI that project managers have unique opportunities across sectors and industries to dive into exciting challenges. And project professionals are called upon to leverage a wide range of skill sets beyond technical capabilities alone; they include “power skills” like leading teams with empathy, collaboration and thinking creatively with an innovative mindset. While women certainly don’t have a monopoly on these attributes, studies show that mothers spend more hours a week than fathers on housework and childcare due to the pandemic, making them quite suited for the interpersonal preference of a career as a project professional so long as the employer prioritizes flexible work schedules.

There’s never been a time like now to embark on opportunities in project management, thanks to the kind of online tools that PMI offers like our resource hub full of low-cost or free training opportunities, or our free Kickoff application that guides learners through the basics of project management, allowing them to effectively launch their projects from start to finish. And, of course, PMI offers many opportunities to gain valuable experience by volunteering with local PMI chapters. Chapters are communities of diverse and like-minded professionals which are valued for their networking opportunities. Leverage them, meet others and know that you are not alone.

In the end, it will take commitment from both individuals and organizations alike to level the playing field for women in the workplace. At PMI, we have recognized the hard work that our employees contribute. We’ve stepped up our DE&I efforts to include ongoing dialogue and foster group conversations on wellness and skill development. What steps do you think need to take place to make that idea a reality?

Brantlee Underhill headshot

Brantlee Underhill
Chief Community Officer and Interim Managing Director, North America | PMI

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