Breaking/shattering the glass ceiling

women in project management

Natalie Atkins-Hansen, President, H & A Enterprises, LLC

What is the story of how you decided to go to college or start a career? Mine was made when my uncle died at the age of 40 leaving my aunt (who had no job) and my three cousins (all in high school) with a house payment, car payments, general debt, no income, and no plans for school.

At that point I made a conscious decision that I would never depend on any one to hand me a living and, to live the lifestyle I wanted to live I'd have to make good money. I was in junior high at the time and occasionally my mind would wander…sometimes now, it leaves me completely. Anyway, I was making good grades so I kept my focus on science, math, and physics. I started taking college classes in my junior year of high school so that I could graduate from college early…and start making all that money I was going to make. I had no clue that a “glass ceiling” existed. I probably would not have understood the concept at the time.

When I graduated from high school, I was ready to head off to college, planned to graduate early, and start making the life that I had envisioned for myself. So with all this technical prepping I graduated from high school, won a full four-year music scholarship, and entered the Business Management Program. Why? I have no idea. It just seemed like the thing to do. If you wanted to make money you needed to be in business, right? How do you get in Business, you study Business Management, right? Not necessarily.

I went to work for an engineering firm the summer after graduating from high school and worked as a receptionist. Every day my workload increased. I was given more and more responsibility. The Manager of the Civil Engineering Dept started to mentor me. He took me under his wing, nurtured me along, brought books on engineering careers to for me to read, gave me old professional magazines, and one day he said,“Have you ever thought of studying Engineering?”, I replied, “No way… .I'm studying Business!” Three months later, I finished my semester of business classes and was moving two hours away to enter Engineering school. He and my father convinced me that I was destined to be an engineer. I always tried to listen to my dad, but he'll disagree with me on that.

I always knew I didn't want to Design, I wanted to manage.My focus in Business school had been Management so what a great transition to use my technical knowledge in conjunction with my business training.Little did I know that the greatest barrier ofmy career was not going to be getting an education.

What is the story of how you decided on your career? A woman by the name of Sandra Marshall said her mother use to talk about how some day women postal carriers were going to be taking the jobs of men carriers and that would be a sad time. In 1998, Sandra was a Managing Director of Western Regional Sales for Federal Express charged with the responsibility of developing $2.0 Billion in Revenue. There are CEOs that don't have that type of revenue responsibility. Sandra says she saw it as an “opportunity” not an obstacle.

I was at my son's peewee football game this fall and as many mothers can attest, the testosterone level peaks on a Saturday morning on the football field. My son begged me to let him play this year and against my desire my husband and I decided to let him play to get it out of his system. Well, the 2nd night of practice he got hit pretty hard and the coaches were yelling at all the boys and my son came crying to me after practice and said he wanted to quit. He informed me that I had made him join the team! The next three weeks were more difficult than any construction project I have ever worked on. I found myself talking “up” football. I talked about the sportsmanship of the game, the fitness that his body was getting into, the thrill of rushing onto the field and everyone cheering for you. I did this three nights a week and on Saturday, basically begging him to go to practice. He wanted to quit so badly, but we wouldn't let him. He was dealing with an obstacle. We told him he had to see his commitment through to the end of the season. I talked to the coaches one evening after practice, fighting back tears, and told them the greatest accomplishment that could be made for my son that year was to complete the season (unharmed preferably) and create a desire in him to play football again. Not that I would encourage it mind you, but his attitude needed to be changed and they had the ability to help mentor him along. I'm glad to say my son finished the season, proud of his accomplishments. He was made team captain, and felt quite good about himself. I can also tell you that one of the coaches got so mad during one of the games that he stormed off the field in anger stating he was quitting. My son asked me, “Are you going to let him get by with that?”

Develop a 10-year plan: I had a life-changing event in 1993. Following a divorce I had no job, an 18-month-old baby, and moved out of my marital home to live with my parents. I felt I was a failure. I had all this wonderful education and nothing to show for it. I was doing exactly what I said I'd never do, I was depending on someone else for my living. You've heard it before but I'll tell you again failing to plan is planning to fail. Everything you do today lays the groundwork for the next 10 years.

You must overcome obstacles with Opportunities. That sounds so preppy doesn't it? But it's true. Let's see I had two big obstacles after my divorce. I had no job and no money. I had nowhere to go but up right? After moving back to my parents I found that I had basically worked myself out of a job for the area I was now living in. I had become so specialized in my career path there were no jobs available for someone with my background in their area. I could have moved, but I needed the support of my family at that crucial time of my life. So I made a list of all the emotional and material things I wanted in my life. I visualized myself five and 10 years down the road. I saw myself successful. I saw my son and I living comfortably. I saw us being happy, having a good relationship, sharing with family…and you know what…it was just he and I in that dream…and I felt good about it. I had identified a roadblock in my mind. I had succumbed to the theory that I needed someone to help me. That obstacle was preventing me from succeeding.

Develop the Ability to Sense Need for Personal Learning: So, I developed a plan. I always had an interest in log homes and decided that was what I wanted to do. But how? I bought dozens of magazines, researched the subject for two months, called manufacturers, viewed videos, and selected a product that I felt I could market. Now, if I only had the money. You don't just start building log homes by chopping down trees in your back yard and act like Abe Lincoln. A franchise must be purchased, a contract has to be secured with the manufacturer, your company has to be marketed (lots of advertising dollars), and you must employ someone that knows how to build them. All of these details seemed like obstacles to most but at the time I chose to view them as tasks. I seemed to be knowledgeable on what I needed to do; I just needed the money to do it.

As luck would have it and God was watching over me, a close friend of my family, stopped by my parent's house one day after work.He was an independent HVAC contractor that was having a booming year in construction. He had just secured a contract to install the HVAC systems in 20 homes during the summer. Needless to say he felt pretty good about his business and the security of the housing market in that area. He knew of my plight in attempting to find a job that year and sensed my frustration. The Golden Egg was about to drop in my lap. He told me that he had $30,000 that he was going to invest in a lot and he wanted me to build a spec house on it. When the house was sold I would return the $30,000 to him with interest and the difference would go into a company that I was to develop for the purpose of building homes. I was to hire employees, manage the company, and build the house. Without going into a lot of the technical details, I knew I could make more money on the house if I had my own employees as opposed to subcontracting everything. Everyone told me I was crazy to approach it in that way…but I had a plan.

Build Effective Teams: I went on a spree of hiring six men, carpenters and laborers to build this house. The first man I hired had to be the key to the success of this crew. My superintendent was a man that was 6’-4” tall, a tough guy, a motorcycle rider that knew carpentry and how to lay out a house. I put him in charge of hiring the remainder of the crew. You would have thought we were assembling the “Village People” by the looks of the group that we hired.

Have Managerial Courage: Now,I had a place to build a house on and a crew to build it. I still needed more money. I approached several banks and received many rejections for a construction loan because I had no collateral other than the property. They all wanted me to put up $500,000 worth of collateral for a $250,000 house. Of course if I had that kind of money I wouldn't be talking to them. I finally met a woman loan officer at a bank that would later become one of my best allies in the business. At first she asked my parents to use their home as collateral as all banks did. I refused to enter into such an agreement. I then asked her if I could show her a five-year business plan that showed profitability would she consider making the loan with the lot as collateral. She agreed.

Skillfully Negotiate: What I presented was a plan that indicated our Company would build traditional speculative homes for five years eventually crossing over into the log home market and selling those in additional to our traditional product. I had to feel confident about what I was presenting because my friend's $30,000 was at stake as well as my own success. She gave me a $200,000 line of credit. I then went on my way to open accounts with various material suppliers, vendors, etc. These were some of the greatest people I have ever had the opportunity to work with. From late night and early morning deliveries to placing orders at their homes, these people knew I was determined to prove I could do this.

Customer Focus: We started that house with a lot of onlookers—contractors in the area, material suppliers, and vendors. People were skeptical that a woman could build a house and make money at it. They watched…boy did they watch. And as they watched they began to realize we were not operating out of the back of my pickup truck, we were a first-class organization. Of course my crew had all new tools, vendors wanted our business so they would give us tools on “loan” to try out and we always scheduled their use around our need. Our goal was to build a home unlike the other builder's in the area. Quality was our focus, keeping to the schedule was second, and staying within the budget was our target.

Communicate a Vision and Purpose: By the time the foundation was in place and the first floor up I knew I had to market this house and us or we were done as soon as this house was finished. So, I stated playing the game.I politicked, I networked, and I schmoozed people. I never compromised my integrity. A woman that had heard of my efforts contacted me and wanted to know if she could do an article for the newspaper regarding “Women in Construction.” I agreed. The article was very positive and quite impressive. You have to market yourself. The house was approximately 30% along at the time of the article and I knew I had to line up more work as well as sell this house. That next week, a couple made an offer on the house at full selling price as well as $17,000 in extras. I had this one sold, now what was my next step? With the sale, I could pay my partner back the money I owed him and repay the line of credit, but how was I going to build another house? I had no idea. I still had time to think about it. So I gave myself a week. That following week a man approached me on site one day and told me he wanted to build a customhouse and he wanted me to build it. Shockingly I asked, “You want me to quote it don't you?” No, he said, I've checked out your work, I've checked on your company and “I want you to build it.” WE HAD OUR NEXT JOB!

Develop and Exhibit Integrity and Trust: Our Company's plan accelerated over the next several years. With the help of word of mouth advertising we were able to secure many jobs. My father came out of retirement and started working as a project manager. We opened a retail office space, which gave us the opportunity to display the log home franchise that we had purchased. This work skyrocketed. Within two years we saw our crew of six men rise to 27 and we had as many as four projects going at once in two states. We built a $250,000 model home held openings and seminars, and became known as a respected authority in the field of log home building. I had hitched my wagon to a star…thankfully it wasn't a falling one. I was assertive but not aggressive. I had also erased some stereotypical perceptions.

Drive for Results:You have to produce results in your current position. Like it or not, women are promoted for results. Men are promoted for potential. You must change your behavior, not your attitude. We must change our attitudes about who we are and what we want to achieve. Women must work twice as hard to get half as far—which fortunately isn't that difficult.

Many of us suffer from self-doubt on occasion. Confident people, through reasoning and toughness, are able to shed the negativity that threatens to hold them back. Confident women talk a good game, keep their perspective, fake it (when they have to), don't fear the worst-case scenario, and are masters of a small domain. The more you can cultivate an authoritative tone in nonthreatening situations, the easier and more convincing it will be when you need it. I try to find a register slightly lower than my normal tone, usually my mommy voice and this helps me to speak more forcefully. If you sound confident no one will doubt that you are.

Step up to Conflict: Today I manage projects all over the United States ranging anywhere from $50K-$200M.I've worked for engineering firms, architectural firms, the Federal Government, contractors (large and small), and have been self-employed. I have found the reaction of men in these fields to be similar to the attitudes of men I have worked with on the jobsites. Typically, men are not in the habit of seeing a woman in this profession so they wrongly assume that the woman can't be knowledgeable on the issues of construction. So I always have to prove myself. Sometimes I excel, sometimes I drop back and perform like a man. Yet I have never veered from the path I laid for myself some 24 years ago.

I feel it's funny when I've been asked, often in interviews, if I can handle multiple projects at one time. Yet no one questions a woman's ability to wash clothes, clean the house, go to the bank, return videos, drop the kids at a Scout function, go to the store…ALL before noon on a Saturday morning. How's that for organizational management skills? Oh yeah, and she works 50-60 hours a week too at the office.

In 1996, women held 46% of all jobs. In 2000, this figure was 50%. But women are still a minority in the boardroom, at the Senior Management and Middle Management level. Yet it is proven that advancing women in business can be a rewarding practice for corporate leaders.

Strategic Agility:Women must remove obstacles, volunteer for tough assignments, ask for feedback and take the credit for the work they've done. Women, as should men, must produce results, ask for more feedback, and communicate constantly. Women must be assertive but not aggressive. Be professional in appearance. Walk the walk and talk the talk. Don't whine. Deal with integrity. Women must blend in to be accepted yet stand out enough to be recognized for promotion. Do not promote gossip or be a troublemaker if you want to climb the corporate ladder. Women must change their behavior not their attitude. Use the strength of your femaleness. Success doesn't come to you…you've got to go to it.

I've heard it all. Women sometimes tend to be less committed to careers due to childbearing responsibilities or they can't travel due to a spouses’ job. They tend to be too emotional (don't let them see you cry). Women whine. Let's face it, women are promoted for results; men are promoted for potential. Women are relationship builders and succeed by using the strength of their femininity in negotiating and dealing with people.Women must:

W—work their plan

O—overcome obstacles

M—market themselves

E—erase perceptions

N—necessitate change.

To be successful in any business endeavor, whether it be managing a house or managing a $100 million hospital project.

From the book, The Men at the Office:

MALE FEARS—One man said, “There's a lot of concern and fear among white males these days about women moving up. Women need to be sensitive to that. One man told me, “I'm not afraid of women. But I'm afraid if I let go of the power, I'm going to get paid back for all the wrongs ever done to them by any man they've ever worked for.”

BREADWINNERS—There was a seminar a few months ago about men and women in the workplace. They put the men in one room and the women in another, and asked them to write up attributes about how men view men, how men view women, and vise versa. “One of the attributes frequently used to describe men that did not appear anywhere on the list describing women was breadwinner. The concept that women are not viewed as breadwinners inherently says women aren't committed to their careers. If men think that, we have a real tough problem.”

From the book, I Work Too:

FAMILY/RELATIONSHIPS—A study by Boston University done in 1994 showed between the years 1955–1992 men had increased the number of hours they spend at home on childcare and home chores by +5 per week; while working women increased theirs by +14.

Dana Moore commented in the book: “In my case—my kids came first, my career second, and my husband 3rd. Guess what—I'm not married anymore.”

People don't seem to understand that you can be a wife, lover, mother, and a good career professional at the same time—it just takes balance.

Will the glass ceiling be shattered in our lifetime? I doubt it. I don't believe that the ceiling will ever be shattered totally. There will always be situations and events that make women feel as if they are not getting a fair shake, that they're getting a raw deal, and that they're not being treated fairly. Well you know what? They may be right, but you can choose to take that as a challenge or as a putdown. The choice is yours.

When it comes to raising self-aware, self-sufficient girls, no one wields more power than women. You don't need a daughter of your own to commit to making a difference.

Women will never be equal to men until they can walk down the street with a baldhead and a beer gut, and still think they're beautiful.

And finally, Madeline Albright once said, “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
November 1–10, 2001 • Nashville,Tenn.,USA

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