Gender in project managers

are National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) women and men project managers equal?

Gerald M. Mulenburg, DBA, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, USA

Project management is rapidly gaining acceptance throughout the world as the most effective method of accomplishing both small and large tasks that are often new, one-time, endeavors that are important to complete within a defined period of time using limited resources. The adage of project management that you can have it fast, cheap, or good—but you only get to choose two out of the three—is falling by the wayside. As theory and tools evolve in this field, and as more people become skilled in project management, projects are being completed within these three parameters, often outrageously so. Although many factors influence accomplishing projects within these parameters, the project manager remains the person shouldering responsibility for project failure, but who readily shares credit for any accomplishment. However, for many the challenge of being a project manager is too great a risk to want to take on, and they quickly know this after having tried it. Others cannot wait for the next opportunity to match their wit and skill against an ill-defined, over-scheduled, high-risk, and under-funded opportunity. The intriguing question, is why are some people so good at managing complex projects but equally qualified others (with similar education, training, experience, and so on) cannot seem to make it work and become overwhelmed and frustrated?

This question is of paramount importance to industry, government, and academia. It is even more so in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) which suffers the burden of developing complex, one-of-a-kind projects in an environment of high-visibility and openness. This not only makes NASA’s successes a part of everyday life but also puts its failures on the evening news and the front page of every major newspaper in the world. NASA project managers are undoubtedly among the best, but the challenges they face are often intimidating. Traditionally a male profession, project management in NASA is rapidly becoming who-is-the-best-person for the job, rather than whois-the-best-man for the job. This paper reports research findings from a study of NASA project managers. The study focused on comparing the characteristics of NASA women and men project managers of complex projects. The research question is,“Do women and men project managers in NASA exhibit the same or different characteristics?” and to provide insight into these characteristics. The intent of the paper is to discuss the findings on male and female NASA project managers and address possible implications both inside and outside of NASA, with suggestions for future research.

The Literature

The project management literature abounds with articles and reports of studies about project management and about project managers, who are recognized as the key ingredient in the project management stew. For example, one of the first to write about project managers as being different was Gaddis (1959, 29) when he asked, “What kind of a man must he be?” Archibald (1976) later discussed the personal characteristics of project managers of high technology programs and projects. NASA did its part in studying itself (Chapman 1973; Levine 1982; Murphy et al 1987; Drefus 1991; Leonard et al 1995; Mulenburg 2000). Writings about project managers by many others confirm what is known about the importance of the role of the project manager (Wilemon and Cicero 1970; Thamhain and Gemmill 1974; Kerzner 1985; Graham 1989; Dinsmore 1990; Anderson 1992; Gadeken 1997; Blackburn 2001). Intriguing new insights are being put forth as the formal recognition of project management becomes more widespread. However, due to the long-term male dominance in the field of project management, absent in most of what is written about project managers is whether gender makes a difference in a project manager, and what it may mean for the future of project management. Recent writings indicate that women are not only taking on more project manager roles, but concerns are now being expressed about their recognition in that role (Atkins-Hansen 2001; Baker 2001; Garrido 2001; May 2001; Musial 2001).

As industry becomes more projectized and global in its organizations and the world increasingly recognizes the importance of project management, and project managers, there is a scarcity of capable project managers. A question that arises in the minds of many in addressing this scarcity is whether women project managers are the equal of their male counterparts: do women bring new characteristics to the field of project management, or are they similar to the men? Only the most unobservant would not notice that men and women are different. Why then, would anyone assume that men and women project managers should be the same? There is evidence that indicates that the complicated behaviors of project managers transcend gender, as do many other differences in their makeup. Why is the possible influence of gender in project management an important topic? Because the best man for the job may often be a woman!

Research Methodology

The research design continues and extends previous research (Mulenburg 2000) that examined the characteristics of ten managers of complex projects in NASA. The current research focused specifically on comparing the characteristics between women and men project managers in NASA. It is a qualitative, multiple-case study of sixteen project-cases, half managed by women and half by men. The participants are a convenience sample of eight NASA women and men project managers from across the Agency with each group representing several different NASA Enterprises and Centers, and different educational backgrounds, ages, and types of projects managed. Data collection included the use of self-administered instruments plus in-depth, semi-structured personal interviews with the project managers. The instruments used included a demographic survey, the measurement of leadership using the Jerrell/Slevin Management Instrument (Slevin and Pinto 1988), the measurement of Ego Resilience (Block and Kremen 1996), and the evaluation of personality based on the Meyers Briggs Type Indicator (Meyers Briggs and McCaulley 1985). All participants were offered anonymity and each interview was audio taped and later transcribed for analysis.

Demographic Survey

Because an individual’s approach to life, and to project management, is the result of influences from their environment and how they respond to that environment, selected demographic data was collected to determine if any parallels or dichotomies in the backgrounds of the respondents might help support or contradict other findings. Some differences related to gender were expected because of the environmental differences experienced by women and men throughout their lives.


The need for leadership by the project manager is based on the premise, “One secret to successful project implementation is the project manager’s ability to get this diverse set of actors [project team] performing at maximal effectiveness” (Slevin and Pinto 1988). The Jerrell/Slevin Leadership instrument is a set of twenty questions used to identify, 1) how the project manager views their decision authority and, 2) how much the subordinate group’s (project team) information is used by the project manager as input to project decision-making (Slevin and Pinto 1988). The respondent’s results are placed on a two-dimensional grid representing these two dimensions (Bonoma/Slevin Leadership Model).

Ego Resilience

People who do not respond well to ambiguity and uncertainty are those with egos that are brittle, and therefore not considered resilient (Block and Kremen 1996). Those who have highly resilient egos quickly recover from ambiguous or uncertain situations. Ego resiliency is a measure of people’s adaptability to a temporary situation from which they return to their dominant way of behaving after the situation has been dealt with (Block and Kremen 1996). Adaptability is a separate concept from adapting to a situation as if it is now the new, permanent, environment (Block 1950). The ER89 Ego Resilience instrument (Block and Kremen 1996) measures how well people respond to ambiguity and uncertainty in their environment.

Meyers Briggs Type Indicator

The Meyers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) instrument consists of four separate dichotomous scales that indicate how a respondent, 1) gathers and responds to information (Sensing/ iNtuition), 2) makes decisions (Thinking/Feeling), 3) structures their daily lives (Judging/Perceiving), and 4) maintains their personal energy (Introversion/Extraversion). The MBTI has become a standard and useful method to quickly understand a person’s behavior as they go about their daily business (Meyers and Meyers 1980). The MBTI Form G questionnaire (Meyers and McCaulley 1985) was used for all participants in this study.

Active Interviews

Semistructured active interviews (Holstein and Gubrium 1995) gathered background information about how the respondents managed their projects, and why they made certain choices. Although much of the information from the interviews supports the other findings, space limitations prevent detailed discussion of the interview content.

The Findings

The findings of this gender-focused research indicate that, as a group there are many similarities between the participating men and women project managers. However, individual NASA project managers are still quite unique individuals. The challenge of developing exciting new science, technology, and hardware, on time and on budget, makes being a NASA project manager worthwhile to them. That is why they want to be a NASA project manager, whether male or female. Keeping in mind the small samples of the study, clear inferences and conclusions are difficult to draw from the data to generalize to a global project manager population. However, the random, opportunity selection used in identifying these project managers, and their individual diversity, indicate that the findings may be fairly representative of NASA project managers for both genders.

Exhibit 1. Demographics

Exhibit 1. Demographics

Exhibit 2. Leadership Gender Profile

Exhibit 2. Leadership Gender Profile


The demographic data in Exhibit 1 show a broader age range for the men, and a mean that is approximately four years older than for the women. This is not unexpected since women only began to join the ranks of NASA project managers in the later 1980s. The civil service rank of the respondents are at the top level GS-15 grade for all but two in both gender groups, and these four are just one grade level lower (GS-14). The GS-15 grade level is approximately the equivalent of a senior engineer or researcher in industry, or a colonel in the military. The only higher civil service level is the Senior Executive Service, equivalent to vice presidential positions in industry, or the General Officer/Admiral levels in the military. The NASA women project managers show considerable more variety in their educational backgrounds, in both undergraduate and graduate work. Three of the women have nontechnical undergraduate degrees (English, Economics, Psychology) while all of the men have either engineering or science undergraduate degrees. All of the women also have advanced degrees and two hold Ph.D.s, while only half the men have an MS or MBA, with one who earned both.

Leadership-Motivation Profile

The twenty leadership questions of the Jerrell/Slevin Management Instrument and the fourteen ego resilience questions were combined into one questionnaire of thirty-four mixed questions as recommended for the ego resilience data collection (Block and Kremen 1996). (The answers for both instruments were later sorted and scored separately.) The five-point answer scale for the leadership questionnaire (from strongly agree to strongly disagree) was therefore reduced to a four-point scale to match the ER89 ego resilience scale. This eliminated a neutral score choice for the leadership scale, forcing a decision between agreement and disagreement with the questions. Creation of a new raw score-percentile conversion table provided a method to evaluate the placement of Decision-Authority and Information Input on the Bonoma/Slevin Leadership Grid. However, with such a small number of scores, the results do not have the confidence of the larger database used in developing the original model. It is evident from the raw scores in Exhibit 2 that there is little difference in the leadership profiles of the two gender groups. (D scores indicate Decision authority used by the project managers, I scores indicate Information input to decisions accepted by the project managers.)

Exhibit 3. Bonoma/Slevin Leadership Model Gender Distribution

Exhibit 3. Bonoma/Slevin Leadership Model Gender Distribution

Exhibit 4. ER89 (Ego Resilience) Scores

Exhibit 4. ER89 (Ego Resilience) Scores

Exhibit 5. MBTI Personality Preference

Exhibit 5. MBTI Personality Preference

When the raw scores are converted to percentiles and placed on the Bonoma/Slevin leadership model two-dimensional grid (Exhibit 3), the results show a broad distribution of leadership style for both gender groups from consensus to autocratic. (X’s are the women’s placement on the grid, and circles the men’s.)

Ego Resilience

The ego resilience scores of both the men and women groups (Exhibit 4) are similar, although with a higher mean and mode and a smaller standard deviation for the women. The concentration of all but one of the scores in the highest 3–4-range shows high ego resiliency for both groups.

Meyers Briggs Type Indicator Preferences

The Meyers Briggs personality type preferences for both the men and women project managers also show closely similar types (Exhibit 5). Both groups have a preference for iNtuitive-Thinking (NT) with five of this type in each group. Each group also had two Sensing-Thinking (ST) types, and one iNtuitive-Feeling (NF) type. The majority in each group is also Extraverted (E) and Judging (J).

Exhibit 6. MBTI Numerical Strengths

Exhibit 6. MBTI Numerical Strengths

Exhibit 7. NASA Women Project Manager MBTI Strength Scores

Exhibit 7. NASA Women Project Manager MBTI Strength Scores

Exhibit 8. NASA Men Project Manager MBTI Strength Scores

Exhibit 8. NASA Men Project Manager MBTI Strength Scores

The MBTI preference on each scale is also measured as the numerical strength of that preference as shown in Exhibit 6.

Exhibits 7 and 8 show the numerical strengths of the personality preferences for the NASA men and women project managers, respectively. The groupings of the type preferences of the women and men in the display of their strength scores clearly indicate many similarities. The men’s extreme strength scores tend to range generally higher in most of the preferences except for Thinking (T), where the women’s scores are significantly higher. The men’s Extraversion-Introversion scores also tend to be higher than the women’s scores.


Is it possible these women and men could perhaps be misfits in their type preferences? To explore this possibility, the type preferences of both the NASA women and men were compared to women and men in the National Representative Sample (Meyes Briggs et al 1998). The sixteen types of the Meyers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) are usually represented in a four-by-four grid showing all possible type combinations, Exhibit 9.

Exhibit 9.The Sixteen MBTI Type Preferences

Exhibit 9.The Sixteen MBTI Type Preferences

Exhibit 10.Women Personality Type

Exhibit 10.Women Personality Type

For women in the general population (Exhibit 10), the preferences tend to cluster (more than 50 percent)in four types: E/ISFJ (56.3 percent), with ENFP (9.7 percent) also strongly represented. The distribution also shows women in general are grouped more into the ISFJ (19.4 percent), ISFP (9.9 percent), ESFP (10.1 percent), and ESFJ 16.9 percent) preference as shown in the gray cells, with very few in the ENTJ (0.9 percent), ENTP (2.4 percent), ESTJ (6.3 percent), or INTP (1.8 percent) types. The NASA women project managers however are predominantly in the ENTP/ENTJ (50 percent) and ESTJ (25 percent) indicated by the numbers in parentheses next to the four letter types in the lined cells in Exhibit 10.

For men, the National Representative Sample data (Exhibit 11) also tend toward E/ISTJ (27.6 percent) types shown in the gray cells, but are more evenly distributed in other type preferences than are the women. The NASA men’s predominant type preference however, is 25 percent each in the ENTP, ENTJ, and ISTJ indicated by the numbers in parentheses next to the four letter types in the lined cells in Exhibit 11. Of these three, the ISTJ preference is the most common type in the male general population. Similarly,men in the general population are not strongly represented in the ENTJ and ENTP preferences of the NASA men project managers.

The NASA women’s MBTI type is more consistently Extraverted with only two Introverted preferences while there were three for the NASA men. Also, the women have the same number of NTs as the men, but show only one Perceiving preference compared with three Ps for the men. Although women are often described as the more “feeling” of the sexes, there was only one woman with a Feeling preference, as there was only one man. While the Extraverted preference may be desired in any project manager, from the data it appears equally difficult for Introverted women to feel comfortable in a project manager role as it is for the men. The Introverted men indicated during their interviews that being a project manager was not fun for them and was “difficult” or “hard work,” while the Extraverted men seemed more to thrive in the role. The introverted women did not mention any difference from the extraverted women about difficulty in managing projects. The introverted women who earned a Ph.D. however, chose to return to a research job rather than remain as a project manager.

Exhibit 11. Men Personality Type

Exhibit 11. Men Personality Type

Ego Resilience (ER89) and Leadership

Slightly higher Ego Resilience scores for the women may indicate a significant factor about women in NASA project management. Just to become a NASA project manager takes a “tough” ego, and overcoming gender bias to do it may be reflected in the ER89 scores of the women project managers. Is perhaps an association of this high level of ego resilience reflected in other measures, such as the leadership scores? In an attempt to examine the answer to this question, the ego resilience and leadership ordinal data were treated as interval data. After determining both the mean and standard deviation for this data, the Pearson r correlation coefficient was calculated (Zeisset 2000) to correlate the ER scores with both the Decision Authority (D Scores), and the Information Input (I Scores) of the Jerrell/Slevin Management Instrument. The result for both the men and women are shown in Exhibit 12 and 13 respectively.

The men’s ER scores correlate moderately with their leadership scores (D and I) at approximately the same magnitude. The direction of correlation however, was negative with their D scores (r = - 0.3596) indicating that, as the ER scores increased their D scores, or their tendency to assume greater decision authority, decreased. But for increasing ER scores, their I scores increased positively (r = 0.3108) indicating a willingness to accept more information input from the project team. For the women, Both D and I scores correlated positively with ER, at a higher magnitude for D scores than for the men (0.5381 versus - 0.3596), and at a lower magnitude for I scores than for the men (0.1020 versus 0.3108). In comparing these findings with each individual’s placement on the Bonoma/Slevin grid in Exhibit 3 however, the sample of data is too small to confirm or deny the correlation, possibly because of the low value of the correlation coefficients.

Summary and Implications

The research question, “Do women and men project managers in NASA exhibit the same or different characteristics?” This small sample, using a few measures, indicates there are many similarities among men and women project managers in NASA. Each group was substantially the same in terms of their civil service grade level, leadership scores, ego resilience, and personality type. The educational background of the women was more varied and the education level was substantially higher. The age range was less for the women and the oldest women were about seven years younger than the oldest men, possibly due to women entering project management in NASA in the more recent past. It may also be however, the result of more women than men migrating out of NASA project management into upper management once their capability is recognized, as happened to half of the women in this study. The question of equivalency of men and women project managers is highly relevant as women increasingly take on this traditional man’s role in many areas of both government and industry. Despite evidence that women and men can both now play in this game, progress toward that end remains slow, but steady. The 15–16 March, 2002 International Workshop on Crossing Issues of Gender and Management in Organizations, hosted by the European Institute for Advanced Studies in Management, demonstrates the increasing emphasis on the subject of gender in management. A number of other published sources also explore various rationales for the differences in men and women.

Mintzberg (1996) posits that,“women may ultimately make better managers than men.”His rationale is that women come well equipped with the skills needed: “Organizations need to be nurtured—looked after and cared for, steadily and consistently.” The intensity of complex projects makes this requirement even more important. Mintzberg uses the example, only partly tongue-in-cheek, of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest as the type of manager who can smoothly handle a wide variety of situations.

Exhibit 12. Correlation of Men’s ER89 and Leadership Scores

Exhibit 12. Correlation of Men’s...

Exhibit 13. Correlation of Women’s ER89 and Leadership Scores

Exhibit 13. Correlation of Women’s...

One study (Tullett 1995) looked at cognitive styles of men and women project managers in the United Kingdom (UK) using the Kirton Adaptation-Innovation Inventory (KAI) to determine “… a preferred innovative approach to making decisions and solving problems when managing projects involving significant change.” The study findings indicate that the total project manager sample (N = 108 males, 25 females) was significantly more innovative than both other managers, and the UK general population. The women project manager mean score was 15.1 points greater than women in the general population. The men’s mean was 12.1 points greater than men in the UK general population.

Perhaps it is a matter of brain function. “New research is confirming that the brains of men and women are subtly different … human male brains are, on average, approximately ten percent larger than female brains. Certain brain areas in women, however, contain more nerve cells … One study shows that men and women perform equally well in a test … Yet imaging results found that women use areas on the right and left side of the brain, while men only use areas on the left side to complete the test” (Society for Neuroscience 1998).

Or perhaps it is simply a matter of testosterone level? One author posits that many of the differences (and similarities) among women and men, may be more due to their individual testosterone levels rather than to gender: “Testosterone is clearly correlated in both men and women with psychological dominance, confident physicality and high self esteem” (Sullivan 2001). In addition to the obvious male-female physical differences caused by men having ten times more testosterone than women, a higher normal genetic testosterone level in both sexes increases energy, improves thinking ability, facilitates risk taking, and fluctuates with changes in the immediate environment—it increases when you need it. Since these improvements are highly desirable—if not essential—attributes in project managers, perhaps it can be hypothesized that testosterone levels, in both men and women, might be an indicator of who might be a better candidate for the job of project manager?

Another recent quantitative study (Hauschildt et al 2000) identified selection characteristics of effective project managers. From a group of project managers with successful real project outcomes, and based on data collected from the managers of the project managers, five categories of project manager emerged based on seven factors identified as being important in a project manager. These categories decreased from the most outstanding performers, who had all of the important characteristics at high levels, to those who had at low and negative levels. Yet all had been deemed successful initially. The implication of these findings of course, is that screening candidates for these seven factors (or other factors from different research) will provide a gage of their prospects for becoming effective project managers.

Perhaps the increasing number of women engineering and science undergraduates is contributing to the number of women project managers. While the number of men earning bachelor degrees in engineering and science has been flat at approximately 200,000 since the mid nineteen-seventies, women earning engineering and science degrees has nearly doubled during the same period, rising from 100,000 in 1975 to over 180,000 in 2001(Krieger 2001).

Or is it Emotional Intelligence (Salovy and Mayer 1990; Goleman 1995) that may be at work here? The “soft” characteristics needed by managers, and needed more intensely by managers of fast-paced complex projects, have been known for many years (McGregor 1957; Maslow 1943; Bartol 1974; Miller 1978; Herzberg et al 1984). There is obviously no single answer to the question of male-female values, and much splitting of hairs as to what makes great project managers great. But that does not lessen the need to continue to explore these issues in order to build upon the knowledge base. The research reported here takes an incremental step in that direction.

What then might be the implication for the practice of project management, and for further research in this area? Project management in NASA has many parallels in other government agencies, and in industry, and it seems reasonable to expect similar findings under similar conditions. The sample size needs to be significantly larger with more and different measures used in order to provide a statistically valid and reliable generalization to a larger population. The growth of both the Project Management Institute (PMI®) to nearly 100,000 members, and the number of Project Management Professionals (PMP) exceeding 10,000 members, provides an opportunity to create a large and meaningful research sample that could be generalized to the larger population of project managers. In addition, other parallel studies of smaller groups of men and women project managers in specific disciplines offers the opportunity to explore these disciplines, such as information technology, to determine if and what characteristics and behaviors are most effective in project management. For women and men project managers, continuing to examine equivalency between the genders will provide important information for the field of project management.


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