The ultimate circus
WORK+LIFE >> BY CARA FINNEGAN
The age-old adage that a woman's work is never done still rings true today, with an estimated 70 percent of working-aged women now part of the global labor force. While many men also struggle to keep their personal and professional lives in check, more women are joining the ranks of project management and finding that maintaining schedules, budgets and deadlines both at work and at home takes a combination of skill and sacrifice.
“When you're juggling these things, you can't be around for everything. And there's a cost,” says Kim Hinton, PMP, program manager in scientific information management at pharmaceutical giant Merck, Rahway, New Jersey, USA. For more than 20 years, she has tried to balance her personal and professional obligations as she shot up the male-dominated career ladder. But both sides suffered as Ms. Hinton missed out on after-hours bonding with her boss and games with her kids.
Jennifer Stapleton, a project management consultant who has worked for almost 40 years in Europe and the United Kingdom, found herself in a similar situation. “When my children were small, I worked mainly from home and had an au pair, a cleaner and a secretary all working for me part time. All my salary was spent on these for about five years.” This was a necessity, she says, to stay competitive in the workforce. “The message was clear: Stop for five years and [you will be] considered out-of-date and useless.”
But today, a new wave of workplace flexibility and a changing view of corporate culture are helping female project managers maintain a better work/life balance.
Enter the Flexible Workplace
Since giving birth to her daughter in September 2005 and taking a year-long maternity leave, Andrea Casson has worked part time from home.
“Overall I would say I've achieved the balance that works for me,” says Ms. Casson, program manager for London, England, telecommunications group BT. “I don't think it's a case of work versus the rest of your life where there can only be one winner. But BT was very supportive in terms of laying out…options and allowing me to devise my own arrangements.”
And as time has gone on, she has seen more choices for working women open up within the organization.
“There is much more acceptance of flexible working, including part-time and home working. Women's groups are being established to campaign for changes in working practices,” Ms. Casson says. “And I will have no hesitation requesting another change if and when my circumstances require it.”
Ms. Casson is not alone in getting support from her employer to find alternate work arrangements that fit her lifestyle. After Ana Maria Rodriguez, PMP, gave birth to her daughter in July 2007, she learned that life is all about choices—and that the project management field helps make those choices easier.
“The project management field is so broad that it makes it easier to adapt a professional career to the needs of a woman in each specific moment,” says Ms. Rodriguez, an independent project management consultant in the engineering and construction industry in Rosario, Argentina. “For instance, there are high-profile and stressful projects that are challenging and very educational to face, but leave less time for one's personal life. But there are also many projects that are less stressful, less demanding, but are still interesting and a great professional experience.”
And the expanding project management field is opening up those choices. “The demand for experienced project managers is constantly growing. As a result, clients and employees [seem] willing to offer more flexible working conditions in order to attract better project managers,” says Ms. Rodriguez.
A New Alternative
Indeed, major corporations, small businesses and government agencies have all changed the face of the workforce by instituting flexible hours, work-at-home options, daycare facilities and other accommodations to help employees better accommodate their families' needs. These types of arrangements have helped create corporate cultures where women can have both the careers and the families that they desire, without decreasing productivity.
Underscoring the importance of such benefits, both Fortune and Working Mother magazines assess work/life balance when compiling their 100 best companies to work for lists.
“Merck, for example, is constantly striving to get to that point where there's a good work/life balance for everyone.
When you've got management that believes in alternative work arrangements, it works,” Ms. Hinton says.
Both Ms. Casson and Ava Heuer, PMP, have found telecommunications companies to be particularly committed to flexible work options.
“It would be very hypocritical for a telecommunications company to say in effect, ‘I know we invented the protocol for wireless communications so that you can respond to my e-mail while attending your son's recital…but I don't want you to use it, so please answer that e-mail from your desk,’” says Ms. Heuer, who owns Ava Heuer Consulting in Maplewood, New Jersey, USA, and is vice president of professional development and training for the PMI New Jersey Chapter. And Ms. Casson's company, BT, sets an example with more then 10,000 employees working with alternate schedules or telecommuting arrangements.
Still, the best examples may be in government jobs. “The public sector in the [United Kingdom] is a wonderful place for women to work at all levels,” says Ms. Stapleton, citing her experience managing projects in that sector. “As a consultant, I visited many different organizations, and…it was only in the public sector where women can leave work at 3:30 in the afternoon and not have to apologize for leaving early,” she says. “Because they set the equality in employment rules, the government must necessarily adhere to them—and they do so splendidly.”
In the United States, more than half of federal employees are eligible to telecommute, compared to 16 percent of their private-sector counterparts.
A Cultural Shift
This business trend of offering better work/life options is partly due to a cultural shift toward recognizing the necessity of women in the workplace. And even more traditional cultures are starting to change, Ms. Rodriguez says.
“In the last decade the Latin American culture has strongly changed its view of the role of women. Each day there are more and more women choosing a demanding professional career and families are adapting to this choice,” she says.
Increased globalization is helping too. “Global projects have provided the platform for greater visibility and acceptance of managing remotely,” says Ms. Heuer.
That said, companies aren't the only ones responsible for ensuring equilibrium. “We tend to focus solely on the employer/corporation to create this environment for us, but it is important to realize that we must also be proactive in procuring the support, tools and cooperation of those in our personal lives,” says Ms. Heuer.
But, she adds, if anyone can do it, project managers can. “Project managers are trained to be proactive and look for creative solutions, so in that way we are the best suited to find ways to achieve balance.”
Ms. Hinton agrees, “Awareness has been heightened, so it can only get better for women.”
Cara Finnegan is a freelance writer and editor based in Salem, Massachusetts, USA, who covers business and healthcare issues.
<< www.pmi.org << MAY 2008