The leadership attributes and strengths of female project managers

Concerns of Project Managers

Mary-Blair Valentine, Army Materiel Command, Alexandria, Virginia James E. Price, Defense Systems Management College, Fort Belvoir, Virginia

The problems and opportunities facing female managers in today's workplace have been clearly portrayed in the literature. However, project management, a distinct subset of organizational management, has not been sufficiently addressed in terms of women's participation. This article provides a unique opportunity to review the current status of women performing responsible and meaningful leadership roles. The focus is on the project management environment, where some of the greatest obstacles reside side-by-side with some of the greatest opportunities for women to exercise their particular style of leadership.

The article contains three sections. The first addresses differences between masculine and feminine leadership styles, as noted by several contemporary management writers and scholars. For example, the masculine management style is generally characterized by rational and analytical behavior leading to concrete decision making and implementation. The more feminine-oriented styles are recognized by negotiation, compromise, and greater regard for the inter-dependencies among behaviors and the fluid nature of implementation and change. Both can be seen as critical for success in the project management of complex projects.

Table 1. Gender Differences in Leadership Model

Operating Style
Organization Structure
Basic Objective
Problem Solving Style
Key Characteristics
High Control
Quality Output
Lower Control
High Performance Standards

The second section examines the difficulties encountered by those men and women, using the more feminine styles of leadership and management, when confronting the traditional male-oriented, hierarchical organization. Constructs such as the “Glass Ceiling” and the “Narrow Band” are presented briefly to demonstrate the constraints facing those whose leadership style is not congruent with organizational norms. Although there are certainly male and female managers facing this dilemma, it is more frequently the women who are encouraged, or even expected, to alter their ways to mold to the organization's expectation.

The third portion explores the strengths and intrinsic value of the more feminine styles of leadership and management, together with an overview of the types of organizations which could benefit most from those attributes. Project management will be defined and highlighted as an environment particularly suited for such styles. Women are making significant inroads into this field, as indicated by the desire to have an entire issue of PMNETwork focus on them. It is to everyone's advantage to utilize their skills rather than encourage allegiance to organizationally-mandated behaviors.


She's so compassionate and nurturing. He is such a clear, rational decision maker. She listens well and always understands. He is a formidable opponent with a keen sense of competition. Sound familiar? These are just samples of the commonly held beliefs about men and women that permeate our society. Certainly men can, and do, nurture or listen. Without a doubt, women can be as analytical as any man, but there are definitely expectations for behavior based on gender that are firmly rooted in our minds and spill over into the way we act.

The source of these differences maybe biological, psychological, or simply a matter of socialization-but whatever the cause, they exist. In recent years, the impact has been felt more and more in the workplace as women are seeking careers in areas formerly populated predominately by men. Table 1 is based on best-selling author Marilyn Loden's concept of how gender differences come into play at work [5].

For many years, corporations and organizations held the view that the hierarchical model based on command and control was the “one best way” to manage. Women who wanted to succeed in business adapted to that model by dressing and acting like their male counterparts. Loden was one of the first to suggest that there were strengths and benefits to both gender models of leadership or management.

Loden's model is particularly relevant to project management. Project managers find themselves at varying times and places dealing with highly diverse constituencies that need to be handled in very different ways. Male and female project managers alike frequently need to negotiate and build teams within a matrix organization, seek compromise across a wide range of organizational departments or functions, ordeal swiftly and decisively with competitors or stakeholders.


A fairly recent addition to the studies of women in management and leadership, as well as to several comic strips dealing with women in work settings, was the identification and definition of the “Glass Ceiling” that exists when women have advanced far enough to see the top of the hierarchy through the glass, but cannot break through to the highest levels in the organization [7].

Similarly, there is a “narrow band” or very limited range of behaviors acceptable for use by women aspiring to break though the Glass Ceiling. The acceptable band is composed of only those actions that are not perceived as being “too traditionally feminine” or “too much like a man” [8, p. 55]. These restrictions on acceptable behavior are deeply ingrained attitudes in the minds of many and frequently place women in a double bind in which they are perceived as either too feminine to be a manager or too masculine to be a caring supervisor or mentor [4, p. 289].

In one of the most comprehensive studies of female leadership styles to date, Schein found that men and women perceived that “successful middle managers possess characteristics, attitudes, and temperaments more commonly ascribed to men in general than to women in general” [9, p. 95]. Replication of the research 15 years later found that women no longer sex-typed jobs, but that men still did. As a result, women were still found to be “emulating the masculine model of success” [1, p. 663].

The project management environment, even though it is a relatively new field, was originally patterned after a traditional male-oriented, male-dominated hierarchy. The first inhabitants were engineers, mostly male, who came from the Department of Defense or NASA, with a background of command and control. This view served the project management environment well until the complexities of managing matrix organizations became prevalent. Maybe it's time to look at the strengths being brought to project management as more and more women, or men with more people-oriented styles, enter the field.


Many writers have proposed the theorem that women are lacking in management capabilities because as girls they were not generally exposed to team sports [3, p. 35]. Team sports are purported to emphasize competition, delegation, victory, teamwork, and a “play by the rules” attitude. That women missed the developmental experience of team sports was perceived to be a critical weakness in their ability to understand the world of business.

Gilligan noted, however, that researchers overlooked the lessons of girls games such as hopscotch, jump rope, and “playing house” [2, pp. 11-12]. These games have been found to instill attitudes of cooperation, improvisation, mental flexibility, and the importance of relationships—attitudes which matter “in today's workplace, where innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity are in demand, and the authoritarian chain of command is increasingly obsolete” [3, p. 37 and p. 248].

The project management environment is certainly one where this is developing rapidly. If we are to keep in step with fast-paced changes in technologies and are to maintain a competitive edge in the marketplace and deal effectively with our customers, there are lessons to be learned from these ideas.

Gilligan [2, p. 62] and Helgesen [3, pp. 49-601 also provided detailed explanations of the concept they call a “web of inclusion.” Just as “girl games” emphasize maintaining relationships (modeling after and bonding with mother) and boys' sports reinforce individuation (separation from mother) and teamwork (male bonding and hierarchy), there is a different orientation to work groups. Girls, and later women, tend to see themselves as being in the center of a web of relationships. They are content and happy in the middle where they are equidistant from all. They are comfortable in matrix organizations or entrepreneurial endeavors. Men and boys strive to be “at the top.” In the imagery of the web, the “top” is really at an outer edge of the web, the last place that women want to be.

The matrix environment of a project management organization can be depicted as just such a web. This maybe a niche where project managers with more feminine management styles may serve the organization and find an outlet for their strengths.


Project management organizations, like so many others, were formerly male-oriented and male-dominated. However, since it is a relatively new field of management, project management provides an exciting setting in which organizations can take advantage of the strengths afforded by the feminine management model described in this article. For example, the need to coordinate between various organizational constituencies, internal and external, is a function well-suited to those who grew up playing relationship-oriented “girl games” rather than the corporately-valued team sports.

There are differences in leadership style generally attributed to gender. Effective project managers need to employ techniques over the entire range of styles. Women maybe uniquely suited for project manager positions if they are allowed the latitude to utilize their own leadership and management styles.


1. Brenner, O.C., Tomkiewicz, J., and Schein, V.E. 1989. The Relationship Between Sex Role Stereotypes and Requisite Management Characteristics Revisited. Academy of Management Journal, 32(3), 662-669.

2. Gilligan, C. 1982. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Woman's Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

3. Helgesen, S. 1990. The Female Advantage: Woman's Ways of Leadership. New York: Doubleday.

4. Korabik, K. and Ayman, R. 1989. Should Women Managers Have to Act like Men? The Journal of Management Development 8(6), 23-32.

5. Loden, M. 1985. Feminine Leadership or How to Succeed in Business Without Being One of the Boys. New York: Times Books.

6. Morrison, A.M., White, R.P., and Van Velsor, E. 1987. Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Can Women Reach the Top of America's Largest Corporations. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

7. Morrison, A. M., White, R. I?, and Van Velsor, E. 1992. Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Can Women Reach the Top of America's Largest Corporations. Updated Edition. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

8. Ibid.

9. Schein, V.E. 1973. Relationships Between Sex Role Stereotypes and Requisite Management Characteristics. Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 57, no. 2, pp. 95-100. img


Mary-Blair Valentine is program manager for the Army Health Promotion Program and the Army Communities of Excellence Program for the U.S. Army Materiel Command worldwide. She is responsible for employee health/fitness activities, a multi-million-dollar installation excellence award program, and other Total Quality management (TQM) and Quality of Life programs. She consults throughout the government on federal employee health and fitness programs.

Dr. Valentine holds a B.A. in English education from Ohio University (1970), a masters in public administration from the University of West Florida (1982), and a doctorate in public administration from George Washington University (1993).


James E. Price is professor of information systems management in the Integrative Program Management Department, Defense Systems Management College (DSMC), Fort Belvoir, Virginia and has taught at the National Defense University, Washington, DC. Dr. Price's professional background spans more than 20 years in information systems project management. He received his Ph.D. (science and technology policy) from George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and completed post-doctoral studies in information systems management at the University of Baltimore.

Dr. Price is editor of the Information Systems Specific Interest Group (ISSIG) quarterly newsletter.

PMNETwork • March 1994



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