Breaking the project management glass ceiling

barriers to organizational project management


A glass ceiling is an invisible barrier that prevents certain categories of people or groups from advancing higher up in the organization due to a variety of reasons. Is there a project management glass ceiling? Is this glass ceiling preventing project managers from “moving up the ladder” of organizational responsibility and project management from becoming an integrated management approach to deliver value?

As more and more companies are implementing project management (PM) initiatives, there is a push to advance project management towards higher levels of management, with more strategic focus and alignment with organizational goals. As the project management community promotes the Organizational Project Management (OPM) view as a means to manage projects within an organization through projects, programs, and portfolios in alignment with the achievement of strategic goals (PMI, 2003), project managers are finding more and more barriers to this progress. We believe that there is currently a project management glass ceiling that prevents PM from becoming a broader, integrated management approach. This glass ceiling boxes PM and project managers into a tactical and technical view, and maintains PM in a controlled product delivery role embedded in an excessively controlled form.

This paper is the basis for a forum to be held during the PMI Global Congress, Toronto. It aims to identify the barriers that stifle the development of OPM and will present ideas for breaking that glass ceiling. Its purpose is to raise questions, explore paths and trigger discussions for improving the situation of project management and project managers in organizations. We will question the purpose of PM: whether PM should just focus on the tactical aspects of project execution and successful project delivery, or if it should pursue an integrated OPM approach.

The glass ceiling can be viewed from two perspectives: that of the individual project manager – preventing project managers from “graduating” into more strategic roles – and the project management discipline – the advancement of project management within the organization as a strategic function, that aligns projects, programs and portfolios to deliver strategic value. Both of these perpectives are linked and impact each other. In this paper we have decided to address primarily the latter, the discipline of project management, as Project Management Institute (PMI®) has already initiated a series of initiatives to address the former through, the Career Framework Initiative (PMI, 2005).

A “Glass Ceiling” in Project Management?

A glass ceiling is an invisible barrier that prevents certain categories of people or groups from advancing higher up in the organization for a variety of reasons. The term refers to the inconspicuous nature of such barriers which these groups are perceived as unable to cross. The “Glass Ceiling” was first identified in the late 70's and early 80's from research on gender differences in the workplace; it was popularized in a 1986 Wall Street Journal article describing the invisible barriers that women confront as they approach the top of the corporate hierarchy and culminated in 1991 with the creation of The Federal Glass Ceiling Commission (1991-1996), which extended the principle to all minorities (USDL, 1995 a, b).

Project managers suffer many of the challenges identified in the glass ceiling concept, although it would not be fair to compare the situation of project managers to that of minorities, the discipline can certainly learn from the concept. PM practice has mostly been delivery-oriented with a process/system/engineering approach. It is typically perceived to be at the ‘bottom of the food chain’, with a tactical, if not operational, focus. This is evidenced by following typical PM perceptions and realities that the authors have recorded:

  • PM is primarily tactical; its objectives are mostly related to technical execution.
  • Project managers are seldom invited in the decision-making process related to project strategy, and not part of senior management strategic meetings.
  • Project managers are not involved in early stages of project selection, prioritization and definition (a view promoted by A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (PMI, 2004).
  • Control systems stifle authority of project managers over resources (people or budgets). Authority does not correspond to responsibilities.
  • Project managers are not adequately recognized for their business contributions; may be prejudiced in terms of promotions to higher level strategic positions.
  • Typically PM does not garner respect or support from functional and senior managers, except in delivery oriented organizations.
  • No significant action is taken to resolve issues that are raised by project managers, but they are often blamed for these issues.
  • PM reporting relationships are usually at lower to mid-management levels, very seldom senior management.
  • There is an often purposeful disconnect between PM and Sales & Marketing. Project managers do not interact with clients, except from an execution standpoint.

These elements have contributed to creating a limited perception of project management and prejudice the capacity of PM to become an organizational management approach and of project managers to advance to senior management positions. One of the project manager's interviewed for this paper used the analogy of a PM as a mechanic in a car dealership: As good as the mechanic is, he/she is limited to the workshop and never invited to participate in management meetings. Prejudice and perception limit the project manager to a technical/operational role. Janice Thomas and her team, in a PMI funded research (Thomas, Delisle, & Jugdev, 2002), have stated that one main reason why executives do not buy into project management is that project managers are perceived as too product-centric (technical-delivery oriented) as opposed to promise-centric (value-oriented).

The Role for Project Management

“Every organization attempting something has to ask and answer the following question: What are we trying to accomplish?” (Jensen, 2001, p 8). One of the fundamental questions that each organization embracing PM has to address at some point is: What is the role and purpose of project management within our organization? Is it intended to be a tactical, project execution and delivery process, or is it a strategic, organizing role that encompasses projects, programs and portfolio to achieve strategic alignment and business value?

Traditionally project management has been delivery-oriented with a process/system/engineering approach (Winch, 2004; Jafaari, 2004; Cooke-Davies, 2004) of which the PMBOK® Guide (PMI, 2004) is a good example. First and foremost the traditional PM function is to successfully deliver projects, but Project management has also consistently failed to deliver business benefits (Standish, 2000; KPMG, 1997). The question is then: Should project management focus only on this traditional view of PM? If not, as many authors seem to suggest, what is wrong with this tactical view and why should we change it? The answer depends upon the organization's history in delivering projects successfully. We believe that while the tactical approach of the PM discipline can certainly increase successful delivery, it can also be limiting. This limited focus often curbs PM's capability to deliver business value and innovative solutions. We believe that this vision inhibits the real value of PM and limits its ability to link strategic objectives with tactical execution. The linkage of business strategy to tactical project delivery is paramount; they are two sides of the same coin. When strategies and tactics are pursued independently and a strong link is not established or understood, projects do not deliver business benefits, but only good technical solutions. A good understanding of this strategic link enables PM to rise above the trenches, focus on the ‘Why’ and makes possible a move beyond the glass ceiling.

Barriers to the Rise of PM in Organizations

Because there is little research data available on why project management does not rise beyond the tactical aspects of organizational management, we have decided to draw on some of the ideas produced by the Glass Ceiling Commission. Their first report specifically identified perceptions as a barrier to promotion “because perceptions, true or not, perpetuate the existence of the glass ceiling barrier. Perceptions are what people believe and people translate their beliefs into behaviors, attitudes, and bias” (US Dep't of Labor, 1995a, p.6). As we have seen earlier, perceptions are one of the key barriers to the rise of PM in organizations.

They identified three levels of barriers, two of which could apply to PM:

  1. Societal Barriers, which may be outside the direct control of business
  2. Internal Structural Barriers, within the direct control of business

The second report (US Dep't of Labor, 1995b) defines barriers as problems to be resolved; some of which can directly be applied to PM:

Societal Barriers

  • The Supply Barrier: The lack of qualified, capable project managers to take on management roles.
  • The Difference Barrier: Conscious and unconscious stereotyping, prejudice, and bias that PM is tactical.

Internal Structural Barriers

  • Organizational Structure: Structures that prevent direct report and communication to strategic echelons.
  • Pipeline Barriers: Career development and recruitment policies that directly affect opportunity for advancement.
  • Corporate climates: Culture that alienates and isolates project managers from management roles.

Following this analysis, we have decided to develop a two step model of the PM Glass Ceiling for discussion. The first model shows how the project managers and the executives, senior management and stakeholders are using their education, background, skills and capabilities to input the organization, its structure, policies, culture and politics, its awareness and knowledge of PM and OPM maturity.

The Creation of the Glass Ceiling: Contributing Elements

Exhibit 1: The Creation of the Glass Ceiling: Contributing Elements

The second model shows how past PM experience and results—consciously or unconsciously—create prejudices and perceptions through its history prism. This breeds attitudes and behaviors that create the glass ceiling; in this example, composed of all five barriers. The more of these layers are present in the organization, the thicker the glass ceiling.

The Glass Ceiling in Project Management: Barriers

Exhibit 2: The Glass Ceiling in Project Management: Barriers

As shown in the model, prejudices and perceptions get reinforced and barriers are built through the results and experience with project management and the capabilities of project managers. Hugh Woodward, past President of PMI and current President and Editor of the PM Forum states that there are mainly three possible reasons why PM does not sell to executives (Woodward, 2005):

  1. PM's claims do not match results
  2. PM as a “product”, does not address the need
  3. PM substitutes bureaucracy for effective processes

There are a number of studies that demonstrate that PM is not fulfilling its claims. Woodward also states that although some studies show that applying more control leads to better performance, these studies are baseline biased and do not necessarily address the issues that are significant for executives, more specifically: “Is this the best investment for the limited resources available to me at this time?” (2005, p. 3).

PM is typically perceived as a limited technical and execution process with a tactical focus and it will be very hard to change that perception. Some of this perception is compounded by the following factors:

  • History of failed projects and weak project management from a business point of view. As a result PM has no respect to participate in more important strategic initiatives.
  • Experience with technical PM's who are buried in the trenches putting out technical fires without interest for business implications. Thus emphasizing the technical perception and limiting the possibility of PM participation in senior management decisions, as executives may have a hard time seeing beyond their technical expertise.
  • “By the book” project managers who do not understand business and have a hard time assessing, reviewing, and communicating project relevance in the context of changing business needs and thinking strategically.
  • The tools and techniques bias of PM. Many participants in the authors' PMO and Program Management (PgM) seminars are surprised when they are told that tool implementation is not important for implementing PgM or PMOs in organizations, but that understanding of culture is.
  • PM perceived as negative, with a threat-based risk approach, listing all the reasons why it cannot be done, rather than looking at opportunities and providing solutions to take on new business and projects.
  • A deliberate management maneuver to keep strategy and tactics apart for organizational, political or cultural reasons.
  • Senior management giving lip-service to PM and their intent in implementing OPM as a discipline, creating a weak position for PM. In this situation, PMOs have a hard time taking off and are often set for failure.
  • Low perceived value and cost/benefits ratio of implementing and investing in OPM.
  • Gap between marketing/sales and delivery, PM not aligned with the needs of marketing/sales, and project managers do not get the opportunity to partner with sales/marketing.

All these points need to be discussed and addressed to identify solutions to the current situation of PM and its position under the glass ceiling.

Strategies to Chip the Glass Ceiling

The analysis by the Commission of the companies that are managing change effectively indicates that the following characteristics—detailed in the report—are common to all successful glass ceiling initiatives:

  • They have CEO support.
  • They are part of the strategic business plan.
  • They are specific to the organization.
  • They are inclusive of all, no matter their [professional] origin.
  • They address preconceptions and stereotypes.
  • They emphasize and require accountability up and down the line.
  • They track progress.
  • They are comprehensive.

We believe that many of the above summary recommendations—the Internal Structural Barriers—could be applied to the project management situation. In the following section on strategies, we have replaced the word diversity with PM and minorities with project managers, by doing this, we do not intend to reduce or diminish the importance of the Commission's reports, but to create ground for fruitful discussions about PM and its role in society. It includes the following points:

  1. Demonstrate CEO commitment:
    Communicate visible and continuing commitment [to PM] throughout the organization.
  2. Include in all strategic business plans:
    Include efforts to achieve [PM objectives] in business plans. Ask managers to demonstrate progress.
  3. Affirmative action:
    Undertake positive steps to design and implement employment procedures that ensure the employment system provides opportunity [for Project managers].
  4. Select, promote and retain qualified individuals:
    Seek candidates from non-customary sources, backgrounds and experiences [project management]
  5. Prepare [project managers] for senior positions:
    Expand access to core areas of the business and to various developmental experiences, and establish formal mentoring programs [for project managers].
  6. Educate the corporate ranks:
    Demand and enforce merit-based practice and behavior internally. Provide formal training at regular intervals on company time to sensitize and familiarize all employees about the strengths and challenges [of PM].
  7. Initiate work/life and family-friendly policies: N/A for Project Management Glass Ceiling.
  8. Adopt high performance workplace practices:
    There is a positive relationship between corporate financial performance, productivity and the use of high performance [PM] practices.

The above proposals are ideas for discussion, based on in depth enquiries in the glass ceiling report, their applicability to PM could be discussed in the forum.

The report also identifies summary recommendations for societal barriers. These can mostly be applied to individuals seeking to break the glass ceiling. The Commission argues that attitudinal change brings behavioral change:

The Difference Barrier: Essentially, prejudice, or prejudging that someone is different and therefore less able to do the job. Stereotypes generally result from wide publicity given the negative actions of a few members within a particular group. The bottom line is, however, that stereotypes can be absorbed and become the beliefs upon which we act. The Commission recommends to:

  • Recognize the Role of the Media: The media play a critical role in developing and eliminating stereotypes and biases. An award could be presented annually to the media organization that consistently presents an accurate and positive reflection [of PM].
  • Educate for [PM] Awareness: It is important to remember that stereotypes are not created out of thin air; they often develop, consciously and unconsciously, over the years. Managers must experience, understand and value the strengths that [PM] can create. (The Commission recommends school education).

The Supply Barrier: It is the social force which prevents [project managers] from receiving the recognition or training they need to achieve the next level of professional development. The lack of qualified, capable [PM] resources can be offset by focusing on opportunity and achievement. The Commission recommends to:

  • Counsel for Careers in Business: executives can visit schools and provide career counseling seminars describing their own experiences in the business world. School/business partnerships help making learning more relevant to practical business needs and making future success in the corporate world more likely.
  • Recognize All Potential: educational enrichment opportunities and corporate internships should be made available to those whose promise may not be reflected in traditional skills, but who display leadership, teamwork, and strong analytical, communication and interpersonal skills.
  • Acquire Second Language Proficiency: any executive dealing with customers, contractors and suppliers in other countries must excel in reading, writing, speaking and understanding English. Nevertheless, many executives have found success by speaking the language of their customers.

The above points can be viewed and applied to the PM situation in organizations. Clearly there are some organizational reasons that reinforce the glass ceiling, but as we explore the strategies to chip the glass ceiling it is evident that some of the barriers are also self-imposed. Project managers have to learn to balance between tactical execution and linking the project results to strategic business objectives to broaden their perspective. They also have to learn to become more innovative in non-conventional ways. To influence and change the perceptions of project management in organization recent findings we have to challenge the conventional focus on the project life cycle approach. Morris (2005) points to the fact that the project life cycle is the focal point of PM education, as promoted by the PMI, even in its most recent standards like Organizational Project Management Maturity Model (OPM3®) (PMI, 2004), and the fact that this view weakens PM's strategy focus. The elements contained in the PMBOK Guide® are sufficient to deliver projects, but not to ensure that projects are successful and that to do the latter project management needs to deal with the front end of projects.

Terry Cooke-Davies (2004b) following a review of project success literature, confirms the importance of focus on strategic aspects of “ensuring projects have been defined, developed and selected effectively, and doing it repeatedly” are keys to success.

Following are strategies that are based on the authors' experience and seem to work in OPM, Program, PMO and Portfolio Management initiatives to advance project management to the next level:

  • Show results: Be clear of purpose and earn respect by successfully executing and delivering projects.
  • Link the tactical delivery aspects to strategic business objectives. Highlight misalignment and provide information for linking project, program and portfolio management.
  • Market and communicate: Not just communicate, but also market and sell project management and the value of integrating project delivery with business strategies.
  • Understand why your project is important for the organization and market its benefits.
  • Speak the language: Learn to communicate and speak the language of business. Present yourselves as effective leaders.
  • Provide solutions: Not technical, but to problems that keep senior executives up at night – value improvement, resources optimization, aligning project with strategies
  • Seek training and develop global skills that broaden perspective and addresses key executive challenges of growth, competition, innovation and global sourcing.
  • Develop strategic awareness: Balance executing and implementing with a higher strategic view. Develop an eye for spotting and leveraging strategic risks and opportunities.


As the integrated Organizational Project Management (OPM) approach is clarified, articulated, understood, and possibly adopted by organizations, it is vital to understand the barriers and the glass ceiling that project management faces. PM has been typically viewed as a tactical, execution, and project delivery role. This ‘myopic’ view maintains project management in a tactical execution role, preventing it from being the integrative link between strategic objectives and results. Even with the recent trend towards a more strategic use of PM concepts like program/portfolio management and PMOs, this restricted view from both ends limits project management's ability to deliver business value. Most strategic project decisions are still made based on strategic considerations that have often little to do with tangible benefits (Buckley & Tse, 1996; Amram & Kulatilaka, 1999).

The future of PM lies in continually increasing the success of project delivery and demonstrating it without doubt, but also, and more importantly, by delivering value to the business, which can be achieved by a well integrated organizational project management approach. This integrated approach helps organizations achieve the real value of project management—to execute well aligned business strategies that deliver results and realizable business benefits. There are positive signs as more and more companies are exploring integrated approaches for project management as they try to enhance and mature project management practices. In a recent survey of PMOs by the Corporate Executive Board, 48% of PMOs report to executive level (CEB, 2005). However there is a long way to go and questions to explore, as OPM practice is more complex than it appears from textbooks and the glass ceiling is still intact in many respects.

Next Steps

In the forum we plan to continue to explore the key questions outlined in this paper—the barriers and strategies and ideas to deal with the glass ceiling of project management. The response to this preliminary paper and the forum will help us to develop key premises, to further research and investigate this very important topic of the acceptance and adaptation, of the concept of Organizational Project Management (OPM), related to the future of project management.


Amram, M., & Kulatilaka, N. (1999). Real Options: Managing Strategic Investment in an Uncertain World (1st Ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Barwise, P., Marsh, P. R., & Wensley, R. (September-October 1989). Must Finance and Strategy Clash? Harvard Business Review, 67(5), 85-90.

Buckley, A., & Tse, K. (1996). Real Operating Options and Foreign Direct Investment: A Synthetic Approach. European Management Journal, 14(3), 304-314.

Cooke-Davies, T. (2004a). De-Engineering Project Management. Proceedings of the IRNOP IV Conference, Turku, Finland.

Cooke-Davies, T. (2004b). Project Success. in P.W.G. Morris & J.K. Pinto (Eds.), The Wiley Guide to Project Management. New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons.

CEB (Corporate Executive Board) (2005) Investing into the IT Project Management Office, Survey, Issue Brief, May.

Duggal, J. (2001) Building the Next Generation PMO, Proceedings of the PMI Conference, Nashville, TN, 2001.

Duggal, J. (2004), Projectize Group, PMO Survey, Simsbury, CT, USA

Hobbs, B. (2005) Unpublished research on the PMO, Université du Québec à Montréal. (to be presented at PMI North America Global Congress, Toronto 2005)

Jafaari, A. (2004) Project Management in the 21st Century. Proceedings of the IRNOP VI Conference, Turku, Finland.

Jensen, M. (2001) Value Maximisation, Stakeholder Theory and the Corporate Objective Function. European Financial Management. 7(3):297-317.

KPMG (1997). What Went Wrong? Unsuccessful Information Technology Projects. Retrieved from:

Morris, P.W. (2005) Managing the Front-End: How project managers shape business strategy and manage project definition. Proceedings of the PMI EMEA Global Congress, Edinburgh May 2005. Newton Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

PMI/CIO (2003, July)

PMI (2003) Organizational Project Management Maturity Model (OPM3): Knowledge Foundation. Newton Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

PMI (2004). Guide to the PMBOK® 3rd Ed., Newton Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

PMI (2005, May) Career Track1(1) A Supplement to PM Network 19(5).

Standish Group International (2000). A Standish Group Research on Failure of IT Projects. The Standish Group International Inc.

Thiry, M. (2005a) Business Benefits: Delivering the strategic promise of project management means going beyond project deliverables. PMNetwork: Executive Speak. Newton Square, PA: Project Management Institute. April 2005: 25.

Thiry, M. (2005b) Market the project approach to Executives. Proceedings of the PMI EMEA Global Congress, Edinburgh May 2005. Newton Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Thiry, M. (2005c) The PMO: What is it really managing? Process and System-Based vs People-Based PMOs: Data Management or Knowledge Management. PMNetwork. Newton Square, PA: Project Management Institute. Under Press.

Thomas, J., Delisle, C., Jugdev, K. (2002). Selling Project Management to Senior Executives: Framing the Moves that Matter. Newton Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

U.S. Department of Labor, Office of the Secretary (1995a) Good for Business: Making Full Use of the Nation's Human Capital. The Environmental Scan: A Fact-Finding Report of the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission. Washington, D.C. Extracted from: on 06/20/05.

U.S. Department of Labor, Office of the Secretary (1995b) Good for Business: Making Full Use of the Nation's Human Capital. Recommendations of the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission. Washington, D.C. Extracted from: on 06/20/05.

Winch, G. (2004) Rethinking Project Management: Project Organizations as Information Processing Systems? Proceedings of the 3rd PMI Research Conference, London, July 2004.

Woodward, H. (2005) Project Management Marketing 101: Marketing the Project Manager. Proceedings of the PMI EMEA Global Congress, Edinburgh May 2005. Newton Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

©2005 M. Thiry & J. Duggal
Originally published as a part of 2005 PMI Global Congress – Toronto, Canada



Related Content

  • Thought Leadership Series

    El éxito de las PMO en Latinoamérica member content open

    Los proyectos en América Latina se encuentran en un punto crucial. En toda la región, desde la infraestructura hasta las finanzas, desde la TI hasta el desarrollo sostenible, las organizaciones…

  • Thought Leadership Series

    O sucesso do EGP na América Latina member content open

    Os projetos na América Latina estão em um ponto crucial. Em toda a região, da infraestrutura às finanças, da TI ao desenvolvimento sustentável, as organizações estão implantando iniciativas para…

  • PMI White Paper

    Agile Regulation member content open

    By National Academy of Public Admiistration | PMI The National Academy of Public Administration recently presented the results of a year-long effort to identify the Grand Challenges in Public Administration.

  • Global Megatrends

    Global Megatrends 2022 member content open

    Mit Einblicken von Branchenexperten und Vordenkern diskutiert PMI sechs globale Megatrends und ihre Auswirkungen auf Organisationen, Projektexperten und Changemaker.

  • Global Megatrends

    Megatendencias 2022 member content open

    Con información de expertos de la industria y líderes de pensamiento, PMI analiza seis megatendencias globales y su impacto en las organizaciones, los profesionales de proyectos y los agentes de…