Here's How Six Women Professionals Are Building up Their Careers—And Empowering Others
BY KELLEY HUNSBERGER
ILLUSTRATION BY EVA VAZQUEZ
The fight for gender parity continues to dominate conversations—from the boardroom to the classroom.
There is still work to be done. For example, representation of women at the manager level has climbed just 3 percent since 2015, according to a 2019 report by Women in the Workplace, a collaborative research effort between McKinsey and Lean In. And there has been no drop in the number of women who feel that gender is a barrier to advancement or the number of women who experience microaggressions.
Yet commitment to the cause has grown. In 2019, 87 percent of the companies surveyed said gender diversity is a top priority, compared with 74 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, women around the world continue to build careers that drive innovation, change communities, shift companies, disrupt industries and, ultimately, impact the world.
Many of these women are project professionals. In honor of International Women's Day, six project pros explain how they are making names for themselves across the profession while helping to establish the future of the project economy.
Sarisha Harrychund, PMP, professional engineer (structures), Hatch (Pty) Ltd., Durban, South Africa
Game-changing projects have defined Ms. Harrychund's relatively short career as a structural engineer and project professional. From 2013 to 2014, for example, she was part of the team at engineering and project management consultancy Hatch that led the Umgeni Road Interchange project in Durban, South Africa.
“It was the largest infrastructure project in Durban at the time,” she says. “Being on the site was stressful, exhausting and technically challenging, but each day was also a fantastic adventure of not only learning about bridges and gaining site experience, but also seeing how various role-players engage on a project and understanding the political, social and economic factors that strongly influence the construction industry.”
The project helped Ms. Harrychund realize that holding back wasn't going to get her very far very fast in her career. “I had to force myself to grow in confidence to voice my thoughts, to assume responsibilities on projects, and to develop a more fearless and agile personality,” she says.
And grown she has. Since the Umgeni project, Ms. Harrychund has been named an Accenture Rising Star in construction and industrials, as well as a World Economic Forum Global Shaper. She also has been part of award-winning project teams, including the Tugela River Pedestrian Bridge project, the first steel pedestrian suspension bridge in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. Prior to the bridge's construction, community members could only cross the 150-meter (492-foot) river by swimming, with their valuables held in a bucket.
“The program sought to redress past imbalances to historically impoverished communities by implementing infrastructure in these communities that would improve the quality of life,” Ms. Harrychund says.
When other women project managers ask her how they can build a project career that stands out, she offers this advice:
“No matter what the situation, challenges or opportunities are, develop the emotional resilience to always try and do your best. Many years from now, you will look back and realize that everything you have done has mattered.”
Madhu Fernando, PMP, CEO, Innova Strategies, Colombo, Sri Lanka
The first project Ms. Fernando worked on was a doozy—and a major source of stress for most organizations at the turn of the 21st century: preparing for Y2K. As a project manager at telecommunications giant Ericsson, Ms. Fernando was responsible for overseeing all telecommunications system upgrades in the Asia Pacific region.
“I was reporting to a global project manager who was based in Madrid, [Spain] and worked with peers from all around the world,” she says. “In addition to the usual project management experience, I also got the opportunity to get to know peers from all over, and to travel and experience the way projects are managed in different places. As a young project manager, it has set the best foundation for my life in project management.”
Since then, Ms. Fernando established her own consultancy and has worked to advance the profession in her homeland of Sri Lanka. She founded the PMI Colombo Chapter in 2003 and a few years later helped establish the first PMI Registered Education Provider in the country.
Over the course of her career, Ms. Fernando says she has seen the profession change dramatically, from a limited focus on scope, time and cost to a more customer-centric endeavor to deliver “what the customer needs to meet today's requirements or their dream for the future.”
That continued evolution is going to require project professionals to bring more people skills to the table, she says. “Empathy, working together, communication skills, leading, coaching and mentoring skills will help you build a strong career in project management.”
The Change Agent
Evelyn Quek, head of technical program management, Patreon, San Francisco, California, USA
Ms. Quek and her team are leading the charge as Patreon scales up. In just six years, the company has become an influential crowdfunding source for the creative class, helping everyone from podcasters and writers to comedians and actors to earn money from their supporters. With more than US$1 billion to its more than 100,000 creators, Patreon is set to add new services such as merchandising options, and in October, the organization announced it would open an office in Dublin, Ireland.
“There is lots happening as the organization is growing, and this adds to the day-to-day complexity of ensuring that all stakeholders know what's happening around product development.”
Much of her focus is on the international expansion, as well as “ensuring that the program management function scales alongside our growth,” Ms. Quek says.
Turning that vision into reality will require managing change among Patreon's growing army of employees. “The challenge is getting everyone to understand why change is necessary as we grow and navigating that change with them. What used to work yesterday may not work today, and we need to be able to adapt to new ways of working together.”
Such maturation would mirror Ms. Quek's own transformation. When she was just starting her project management career, thoughts of failure would crawl in, causing her to question her abilities and chosen career path. But the possibility of failure no longer scares her.
“I do struggle with impostor syndrome, and the fear of failure creeps in,” she says. “But I remind myself that the important thing is whether I am willing to take on the new challenge and the growth opportunities it comes with. That's my mentality when I'm going at a new thing.”
Instead of seeing all failure as negative, Ms. Quek has learned to embrace it as another learning opportunity.
“Last year a mentor reminded me: ‘Always look back to see how far you've come, appreciate what you've accomplished, and let yourself enjoy the journey.’ As I looked back at how far I've came, I am excited for the new challenges as they are new growth opportunities for myself.”
Amanda Priestley, senior project management office manager, Hermes, London, England
At one of the United Kingdom's leading consumer parcel carriers, Ms. Priestley doesn't have time to rest on her laurels. Her project management team is overseeing eight programs and more than 60 projects, ranging from front-end customer changes to improve the company's website and apps to major data migrations from one of Hermes’ legacy systems to a cloud-based solution.
“There is a need to move really quickly because of the nature of the beast of the industry that we're in,” Ms. Priestley says. “It's a really competitive market over here because of the increase in online shopping. And we've got a great ambition to be the carrier of choice in the U.K.”
Meeting those ambitions requires fielding frequent—and often urgent—change requests as the organization responds to market shifts and business opportunities. “Staying competitive means dealing with those change requests, while also delivering a very set change portfolio that's established and known.”
She thrives in this environment, though. “Things can change a lot in the project world,” she says. “Don't be afraid of that. The beauty of being in projects and change is that you get a lot of variety, you get to deliver exciting things, and you get to experience lots of different businesses. It's a really transferable skill.”
Claudia de Moya Partiti Ferraz, PMP, CIO, Zaraplast, São Paulo, Brazil
Ms. Ferraz is in the eye of major IT transformation at plastics company Zaraplast. First, she's overhauling the organization's entire IT infrastructure. “The person in this role before me was focusing on controlling the costs,” she says. When Ms. Ferraz came on board, she had bolder plans in mind. That included rethinking everything from the design of the entire network and its security to replacing every server and defining new ways for the various company sites to talk to each other.
At the same time, she and her team are building out the technology infrastructure for a new 80,000-square-meter (861,100-square-foot) plant that aims to use automation to accomplish the same amount of work as other plants with roughly half the number of people.
Her experience working as a project professional at GE, Dow Chemical and Accenture have prepared Ms. Ferraz well for the disruptive onslaught. “I think my background in project management gives me perspective for how I can help my project managers better manage their projects,” she says. “I know how I can challenge them to deliver.”
She believes the transition from project manager to the C-suite is a natural one. But making that transition can still be fraught for women, she admits.
“It's less of a challenge than in the past, but still a challenge for women to prove they are capable of it,” Ms. Ferraz says. “I think that sometimes means getting assigned fewer good projects, not getting the opportunity to show that you can lead the project. Sometimes the mindset is still: If a female project manager gets pregnant, she'll probably stay at home and take care of the child for a while. And she will not be able deliver the projects.”
Such assumptions are frustrating and unfair, says Ms. Ferraz. But the best way for women to build their career is to follow the same advice she would give all project managers, regardless of gender, she says: “Remain focused on delivering the project in the best way possible and meeting all the milestones in all your projects.”
The Rising Star
Yasaman Thompson, senior technical project manager, Acorns, Irvine, California, USA
Ms. Thompson fell into a project management career by accident. While working as an engineer at Boeing, she started filling the role as project manager for concept projects, handling defining requirements, technical writing and internal integration.
“I discovered it was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed it,” she says. “And I really wanted to focus a lot of my skill set on project management.”
But rather than remain a small fish in a big pond, she decided to make a move to a smaller company where she could learn more—and move the needle. Today, Ms. Thompson is a project professional at fintech startup Acorns, working hand-in-hand with the engineering directors and product owners to develop new products and services for customers. She sets objectives and key results to figure out first if the space needs them, and second, to discern whether they'll be financially competitive.
“My job from inception to delivery is to make sure that the whole thing works really well.”
Since joining Acorns in late 2017, Ms. Thompson says she's launched nearly 50 projects. “I've been at bigger companies where apps take a really long time,” she says. “It could take years for something to get out the door. You might not even be there by the time your app gets out the door. But here, we get that instant feedback, which is really nice.”
While she cherishes the technical aspect of her job, it's the opportunity to build relationships that has kept Ms. Thompson in the profession. “I love being technical and working with our engineering directors and really hammering things out,” she says. “I also like working with our product people and fleshing out the visions. And I love being able to champion them along the way.”
Yet she remains frustrated by the lack of female representation within project management, especially in technical areas. “I think you see a lot more female representation on the more operational side, whether that's marketing, customer support or human resources.”
Ms. Thompson is hopeful that deficit is closing, especially with a growing number of women rising through the project management ranks. Inspiration is close at hand: Ms. Thompson's boss, a vice president in charge of the organization's project management office, is a woman.
“Having a very strong female boss helps to guide your career,” she says. “It's one of those unique situations where women can support you in a way that a male manager might overlook.” PM
Delete the Difference
How much a woman makes—and the level of gender parity she's facing—depends on where she is in the world. Here's how salaries stack up across gender lines in the countries with the highest median salaries for project professionals.