Project Management Institute

Women in Project Leadership

Transcript

NARRATOR

The world is changing fast. And every day, project professionals are turning ideas into reality—delivering value to their organizations and society as a whole. On Projectified, we’ll help you stay on top of the trends and see what’s ahead for The Project Economy—and your career.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

This is Projectified. I’m Steve Hendershot.

Over the last generation, women have made progress in the workforce, but there’s still work to be done. According to the World Economic Forum, only 55 percent of women are working in the labor market versus 78 percent of men. Based on current trends, the overall global gender gap isn’t projected to close for another 99.5 years.

International Women’s Day is 8 March, which seems like a great time to host a roundtable discussion with three women who are leading projects and programs around the world. So that’s what we did.

We discussed project leadership, the secrets of their success and what improvements might smooth the way forward for the next generation of women.

We’re happy to be joined today by Varsha Advani from Akamai Technologies in Bengaluru, India; Selenne Berthely from Banco de México in Mexico City; and Asya Watkins from EnvisionRxOptions in Atlanta, Georgia in the U.S. Asya is also the founder of the professional network Women Of Project Management.

MUSICAL TRANSITION
STEVE HENDERSHOT

Each of you comes from a different sector, a different region, a different culture. Let’s talk about what each of you finds most fulfilling, challenging or engaging about careers in project leadership. I’ll cue you during this first set of answers so we get to know your voices. Asya Watkins, let’s start with you.

ASYA WATKINS

Project management is just about every specialty under the sun. You can change from one industry to a different one and still use those strong project management skills to transfer your knowledge to different industries.

So, I love it, and I personally love that I’ve always been able to use my skills and be creative. I think working in project management, you have to get creative sometimes in your approach or your implementation. So, I like that. I like that it’s not the same job every day. There’s always something different. There’s always ways to bring your skills to the job to enhance it and drive a project to make other people’s lives easier as well.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Next, Selenne Berthely.

SELENNE BERTHELY

I cannot agree more with you. I really feel that being a project manager, it puts a lot of yourself into play. I mean, it requires a lot, not only being really good at tech, or being a really good engineer and knowing how to code, or knowing your stuff, but also makes you open yourself to the team. You have to show a lot of empathy, not only with your team, with your users, with the managers, with the people you are working with.

So, I really feel that it’s, kind of for me, like an experience. It’s always something different because you are always working with different people, with different expectations. You have to manage a lot of stuff that most of it, it’s more human-related, like trying to understand but also trying to make the goals of the project to be achieved.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

And Varsha Advani.

VARSHA ADVANI

I also agree with both of you all. I feel that what is good about project management is that you have the freedom to find the field that really interests you. Every project is unique out there, and you want to continuously explore and face different challenges and get the hold of diverse projects.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

It sounds like strong leadership depends on a mix of skills—technical chops, business insight, and then you also mentioned creativity and empathy. How do those elements come together for each of you?

SELENNE BERTHELY

At least for me, this is super important. I really feel that a good leader, it’s mainly, I would say, it’s 90 percent soft skills, really. Sometimes it’s saying, “Oh, you don’t need to know how to code.” No, you need to know how to do stuff, of course. But sometimes these soft skills are not valued as much as being the best engineer in the world. Right?

Sometimes companies or even your teammates or collaborators are expecting that you are, wow, the people that you won the award for best coding engineer ever in the life. But when you show some soft skills are more important for keeping the goal projects, achieving the budget, the time, everything, that it’s not related with knowing how to implement or give an architect solution, or whatever.

ASYA WATKINS

I feel like my leadership style goes along with that too because I think that’s what makes any great leader in project management, are those soft skills and just like you said, we can all run a project exactly the same way, but if you don’t have those soft skills, you’re going to be doing a disservice to yourself, a disservice to your team.

For me, one of the things that’s been successful for my career and for managing implementations is those soft skills and building those relationships. I know I’m in the U.S. and I’ve worked for a lot of different healthcare companies, but just like any industry, it’s a small world, right? So, one, you want to build those relationships, but for me, at least in my career, it’s been a cycle. Someone is always going to migrate over. There’s going to be a company that’s acquired, and you’re all one big happy family again. And it really, no matter if you never see each other or you do, have that small world where you end up working together again as teams. It’s all about building those relationships and also understanding too, as a good project leader, understanding a little bit about everything.

VARSHA ADVANI

I just feel that some of the important leadership skills, which is very important for a person to inculcate is foster communication. So, one of the most important skills of a leader is the ability to communicate very effectively.

There should be honesty and integrity with your teammates. Relationship building, again, is very important when it comes to showing your leadership skills. Ability to allow innovation in your team, in your companies. Again, very important, which highlights key really leadership skills.

And I think last but not the least is also ensuring that you develop leadership skills for others. Because that’s one part I feel where people miss out on that you become a good leader. But what next? There should be also a way by which you allow others also to move to the next level and become good leaders going forward.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

I notice all three of you talked about the importance of relationship building there, so let’s use that as a springboard to talk about mentorship. What’re your experiences with mentors?

ASYA WATKINS

I went through a good part of my career where I didn’t have any mentors that were women because I didn’t have any women in leadership roles to be mentored by, and that was earlier in my project management career.

I think everyone should have both a male and a female mentor, because in my experience it’s been so different. So both really excellent but different styles. The female that I had who was the mentor, she gave me really amazing advice. She also gave me advice as I was growing in my career and in life. So there were things that I just had to consider in my career as a wife, as a mother, that I’d never had to consider before.

My male mentor gave really great advice. His, compared to the female—of course, this is not everyone’s experience—but he always pushed me to go for I guess more riskier things, which I appreciate now, looking back at it. Of course, there’s a time and a place for that in your career. But they were just two totally different styles. So I love that I’ve had the opportunity to have both.

VARSHA ADVANI

I feel that every company should have a structured mentoring program in their workplace because it really creates a great learning culture. Employees know where they getting invested. When they really have a mentor around them, it helps them in the career development. A good mentoring program promotes a collaborative learning environment where it does encourage that employees gain knowledge from those around them. It promotes, again, personal and professional development also, because when you look up to someone and say you really like the person’s way of working, you try to learn a lot from that person and try to apply it in your day-to-day work, be it professionally or personally, for that matter. So it reduces the cost of learning also to the company because, as we know, mentoring can be very cost-effective, the cost is very minimal.

It helps a lot when you have a mentor out there. It does increase your likeness for the job you’re doing. And most importantly, imagine I’m a mentor to a person. Even I benefit from that. Because there are many times when we are mentoring somebody, we also get a lot from the person we are mentoring, maybe a different perspective or different experience, etc. So it’s a win-win for both the person who’s mentoring and for the person being mentored as well.

ASYA WATKINS

I have been a mentor to women. One of the big reasons why I started Women Of Project Management is to have a space for people to have those mentors, to have everything that I wish I would have had early in my career. I would have loved to have a woman mentor talk me through things at the beginning of my career as a woman. And so creating a space for that so that other women can have that. There’s majors of project management in undergrad and grad school that did not exist when I was in college and in grad school.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Let’s say that some newer-to-the-career woman seeks out each of you for mentorship. You may have differing opinions on how much of the experience can be unique or if there are particular obstacles, challenges for women project leaders to navigate. But is there anything in that way that you would caution or guide your mentee through? Like, beware of this. Or this is my specific advice to a young woman following in my footsteps in this profession otherwise.

VARSHA ADVANI

When I’ll be mentoring any women in my company, I would advise that be mature and observant, manage your situation without compromising your professional integrity or quality of work. So keep pursuing continuing education and certification in whatever field interests you are in order to advance to your knowledge base and skill sets. So it’s important for her to attend conferences, technical presentations, then at the very least basically improve your tech networking skills always, because at the end of the day, the learning should never stop.

SELENNE BERTHELY

I would totally advise remain always true to yourself. It’s that it requires sometimes some sacrifice. It’s always about your team. My kind of leadership style, it’s to try to communicate them or transmit this energy that I’m there because I want them to have no obstacles for doing their job. It’s more about building a team, which is really difficult. In my experience, I lead a project for five years with the same team.

It’s difficult, and now that I think about why that was possible, it was because we really have a lot of empathy for each other. We became friends. We feel every day that we belonged to this team, and I think that this sense of belonging, it’s always what’s going to keep people together and loyal to whatever goals we are set. You have to have a lot of passion for sure because you have to persist like always knowing where to come back. What is the goal, what is the objective, why are we here? But also understanding that the main thing is not you, it’s not the other programmer or the other engineer or whatever, it’s the team.

ASYA WATKINS

For me, I mentor a lot of different women, because I needed that. So it’s really passion for me.

I do let them know, just because I wish someone would’ve told me, depending on who I’m mentoring, but if they’re younger in their career, I will let them know that, listen, this has been my experience. It may not be yours, but don’t be surprised if you’re on a project or you get assigned your biggest project, and you’re the only woman in that room. And I also make sure that I always instill into them, you have to be confident in your abilities, right? So sometimes if you are not told this ahead of time, it could be a little jarring. You may be a little nervous. My first big IT project that I had, I was the only woman in the room and on the project. And it was a multimillion-dollar project, and I had to lead this project. And so there’s things that come along with that. Of course, it’s doable. Of course they’re capable, but those are the things that they may have to run into. I’m in the U.S., so not just being a woman, but I also speak from the perspective of being a woman of color, because it is different. And so I also do let them know of different things that you may encounter just because you may be someone that someone’s not used to seeing.

They may not be used to seeing a woman leading a multimillion-dollar project. They may not be used to seeing a woman of color leading this large-scale project. So those are some of the basic things that we talk through, but just making sure personality and just things to expect, not to say that that’s going to be their exact experience, but just giving them a heads up, the heads up that I wish that I would have had earlier in my career.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

What advice would you give to men who are mentoring women?

VARSHA ADVANI

I think it’s very important to be transparent with your mentee’s developmental practices and what you’re really looking out for. When you’re mentoring a woman, it’s very important also to listen with empathy and to ask good questions to understand the comfort level. Across gender, mentoring requires or it might take a little effort when it comes to empathizing with women, but I think that’s a very important factor which comes into picture especially when you’re mentoring or your mentee is a woman. There are gender issues which do exist; it’s very important to acknowledge it and you acknowledge the fact that it does exist, but you again make your mentee very comfortable by encouraging her to speak up and looking up into what interests her and looking into her professional skills and her development practices which she is aspiring to go forward with.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Anything that you wish male members of project teams knew that they seem not to? It’s fine if your answer is, “No, we’re good.” But is there anything that you feel could be seen and understood a little better?

ASYA WATKINS

If it’s a male-dominated team, for example, like I was in the beginning of my career and I was the only woman, one thing I think is important for men to understand is that if for any reason you have a woman on the team and you feel like in any way that maybe she needs mentorship or some guidance or maybe she’s being treated unfairly, that, you know, to partner with women to be an advocate for them. I’m not saying do this huge thing or go protest or something at the job, but just subtle things to support women. I think that that’s also something that maybe some men don’t recognize that it is still being an advocate for women if you show them a process that you usually do on a project, if you share with them some lessons learned on a project before they start a certain project so they feel supported that they have a heads up, that they have a good footing before they start a huge initiative, that is support for women on a team.

SELENNE BERTHELY

In my experience, I also experienced a lot of teams that are full of men; it’s a men-dominated area. And of course most of the time I am leading men in my teams. And it’s, at least in my experience, it’s kind of you have to get sometimes this role of being strong and hard and to speak up, and just sometimes it’s, maybe it’s not the right word to say, but you get a little paranoid in terms of like, oh, are you saying that my idea is not good? Or I think that as women leading teams, with men and women, whatever, it’s important that you remain always calm and try not to take things personal, specifically in this area. But also as you girls, as Asya and Varsha have already said, I think that it’s really important that we encourage our teammates to also be aware of some attitudes or maybe behaviors that sometimes get very common, right?

Like maybe saying a joke or making a comment, and it’s very important that we raise our voice and said like, “I don’t think that’s what you really want to say,” or, “Why are you saying this?” Or trying to say that’s not right. I mean, speak up and just make people aware that some behaviors are sometimes not right. And this is because of the team, you are trying to make the team to work better. I mean, it’s not only men against women or women against men, whatever. I mean, even between just teammates, just raising our voice to have good behavior and good collaboration between people, and it doesn’t really matter the gender.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Let’s wrap up by looking to the future. What changes would each of you like to see in place to pave the way for the next generation of women in project leadership?

VARSHA ADVANI

So I think the biggest obstacle which women face today is there are not many senior leaders. Be it IT, with construction, be it any industry as such. So I think the early inequality has a long-term impact on the entire talent pipeline. So it’s very important that every company sets a goal for getting more women into first-level management itself. I think that’s the starting point to ultimately just to make sure that women are doing as well, especially in the leadership field, as men are doing.

ASYA WATKINS

That’s a good point. So I 100 percent agree. Unfortunately, I absolutely agree because that is reality. One of the things that I feel is I’m able to talk to a lot of different women in project management around the world, and that’s still the number one thing that everyone says. So no matter if I’m talking to a woman in construction, a woman in construction in Singapore, who’s the only woman on her construction site. And she doesn’t know any other women in construction or if there’s a woman in Africa or a woman in the U.S., our number one thing that everyone says is that, “I wish I saw more women in leadership that look like me.” And that’s whoever you look like, but they want to see women.

And so I think that that’s something that I have seen over the last 20 years. I have seen it get better, right? Because I went from seeing no women at all in leadership roles in project management, and now I am seeing a lot more women in project management. I’m a woman in leadership in project management. So that’s an amazing thing, but with that said, there needs to be a lot more.

SELENNE BERTHELY

I cannot agree more with both of you girls, and I would just love to add that it is important to recognize what are the real abilities or skills that are needed for project management. I feel like sometimes in these areas are full of, let’s say again, men or men dominated, it’s more natural that more men are in these leading positions and that that’s the tendency, right? But it, at least for me, it’s just not making more women just go to these positions just because they are women. I mean, the thing that I really feel that has to start being measured or in the areas is what is the real skills that are needed and that the position is offered to the people that really show those skills.

These soft skills sometimes are really hard to measure; that’s why it makes difficult or sometimes it just gets very subjective and there are soft skills is just becomes like, “Oh, yeah, she gets along with the boss.” But it’s not that, it’s just like to recognize what are the real abilities that you need for becoming a leader or go onto the next position for leading teams, making the team win, achieving the objectives. And it’s not all about being the best tech guy or being the best tech girl. I mean, it’s more about really measuring the real skills, and I would say that if we were to do that, maybe there would be more balance.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

Thanks to our three panelists for sharing their insights into what’s made this profession meaningful for them and what’s driven their success. That individual perspective isn’t the whole story, however. Organizations and hiring teams also play a role in making sure that women project leaders are considered and valued equitably when forming project teams. To address that, we welcome Dr. Anna Tavis from New York University who has led human resources teams at Motorola, Nokia, AIG and other companies around the world, and who is now a leading scholar in the field of human capital.

Dr. Tavis, one theme in hiring right now is to use more objective, data-driven metrics when evaluating performance. How is that helpful in achieving gender equity?

ANNA TAVIS

Oftentimes the managers look at the skill sets and the track record of particular employees whom they are bringing in on the team. And that’s where, depending on how the company does this type of evaluation, the objectivity of data becomes really, really important.

They need to bring people who actually deliver and do the work and not just how they look or whether they’re fitting a certain pattern or stereotype that we bring into our idea of what the ideal person will be. So there’s a lot more right now in this space that is more culturally specific. This is why it’s important for the company to be very aware and intentionally build the culture of inclusivity.

And clearly the other thing that HR can do is training new managers, making managers available and providing some very low-tech tools to help them identify the right members of a potential project teams.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

There’s an interesting aspect here, though, which is that some of the things that often make women particularly valuable leaders and team members—collaborative skills, for example—can be hard to measure using those objective, data-driven tools. How can organizations address that?

ANNA TAVIS

So I think where we are focusing right now, Steve, is our ability to identify not only the individual performance but also understand the collaborative aspect of work. This is where there’s a huge gap and the biggest bias where I believe everyone loses. Both in psychology and in HR practice, we’ve been for over a century focused on individual as a unit of measure of work. So all of our incentive systems are exclusively focused on individual performance and in kind of comparing people against each other.

And there’s a lot more research that now is brought in to help with building intelligent tools, collaboration tools and measurement systems that allow to measure not only individual contribution but the impact of an individual on the productivity of the team and the effectiveness of the team. And so emphasizing those collaborative aspects of work that not only, again, single out one performer, but actually lift the performance of the entire team. And the reason I’m bringing it up in the context of the equity conversation is because we know, again from hard data and research not just our perception of things, that this collaboration and contribution to team performances where women by far outperform men.

So it’s often times the individual performance of a female employee might be the average. However, the impact and support and enablement of others to succeed is just as important aspect of the job performance as what the individual himself or herself have done. And again, I think the biggest inequity that has occurred has been in the ability for us to actually measure that collaboration quotient, as we call it. And so now we’re just beginning to introduce tools that can measure collaborative contribution to the team and added to the individual performance. That’s where we are going to see the benefits of gender diversity on the team. Because naturally, and I hate to be saying naturally, but based on what all of the research shows, that’s why the balanced team and inclusive teams perform much, much better.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

International Women’s Day is about celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. There’s much cause to do so within our field, because not only have countless women delivered amazing projects, but they’re also redefining how project teams operate and what they can accomplish. So we can use this moment as an opportunity to take stock of the work yet to be done. But let’s also reflect on where we’ve been and what we’ve built—a field in which women not only have a seat at the table, but are leading the way forward.

NARRATOR

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