Project Management Institute

Women Project Leaders The Fight for Gender Equity

Transcript

STEVE HENDERSHOT

With International Women’s Day this week, it’s one occasion to celebrate all the remarkable achievements of the female project leaders out there turning ideas into reality. But it’s also a time to take stock: to assess progress—and setbacks—and ask what companies can do to help women thrive in the post-COVID world.

KAT MEGAS

I always felt, as a woman, very encouraged and very lifted up by my peers, whether they be male peers or female peers. I think that there are things that an organization can do to try and improve how women are perceived in the workplace. But I realize though that there’s the organizational structure and the things that an organization can take on, but there are still some cultural things that I think we’re still working on.

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.

Women have made great strides in the workplace. But in the last year, COVID-19 fundamentally disrupted people’s lives around the world—personally and professionally. And the toll has been especially heavy on women. A U.N. report found that while the unpaid workloads for both men and women have increased, women are bearing more of the burden. And according to a recent study by McKinsey and LeanIn.Org, senior-level women in the U.S. are far more likely than their male counterparts to feel burned out, exhausted and under pressure to work more. Likewise, working mothers felt those same pressures more so than working fathers.

Today we’ll meet two women leading the way in traditionally male-dominated industries: cybersecurity and mining. You’ll hear about how they forged their own paths, but also about how they and their organizations are supporting and developing women leaders.

Our sponsor for this episode is PMTraining.com. From live virtual classes to online courses available on demand, PMTraining equips students to earn PMI certifications including the Project Management Professional, or PMP®. And Projectified® listeners are eligible for discounts of up to $400 per class; just enter the link PMTraining.com/podcast.

Our first guest is Kat Megas, a program manager at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, in McLean, Virginia, in the U.S. She manages the cybersecurity function for NIST’s Internet of Things program, and Projectified®’s Hannah Schmidt spoke with her about her experiences over the last year and what she sees ahead.

MUSICAL TRANSITION
HANNAH SCHMIDT

COVID-19’s had an oversized effect on working women. One study found that they’re feeling more exhausted, burnt out and under pressure than men. Does that hold true for you?

KAT MEGAS

So, if I remember those questions, yes, yes and yes. Yes, I have absolutely experienced that burnout. Is it something that’s unique to myself because I’m a woman, or is this something that’s shared across everyone? I do think it might be slightly felt more by women than men, so I absolutely do feel the burnout. I do feel very fortunate that I’m working in an organization that pretty much has always acknowledged work-life balance and the importance of work-life balance. There’s always been very much a culture in my current organization at NIST, and I do have to say at other places that I worked like Booz Allen Hamilton and some other organizations. There was always an understanding that family came first, and if anything ever came up, we work to live, we don’t live to work, and priorities are well understood.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

Let’s talk about leadership. What’s been your experience in a field that hasn’t traditionally had a lot of women?

KAT MEGAS

I always talk about this where I will be sitting at a meeting, and I do work in a very male-dominant field, and I will say if you talk about IT being male-dominant, when you start getting into cybersecurity, especially early in my career, it was not uncommon to look around a room of several hundred people and being able to count on your fingers and toes how many women were in the room. But I would often find myself just saying something at the table and having a lot of confused looks around the table, and then a few minutes later someone else would say it, another one of my peers, almost exactly what I said, and people would say, “Yes, that’s a great idea.” And I would just scratch my head and say, “What is it about what I said that people did not understand what I said?”

I think I’m pretty clear when I try to articulate ideas, and I honestly just think it is women have a different way of communicating. We tend to be more trying to bring people along. We tend to also maybe pose things as a question and something to be thought through so that the whole team can come on board, and I just think perhaps men just have a different view of how they react to a situation. So when I was walking up to the table and I’m saying, “Well, I think that this might be a great way to do something,” and folks weren’t realizing that I was really saying, “I think this is the way to do something.” I don’t necessarily think there’s so much that women need to change to fit the mold that’s existing. I think it’s more educating others that this is how women may be expressing something, but it’s no less decisive or forceful. We just have a different way of saying those things.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

So early in your cybersecurity career, you could count how many women were in a room. Do you see many women leading projects and programs in the sector now?

KAT MEGAS

So absolutely there are many, many more women that are part of the stakeholder groups and part of the audience. So I think there are more women that are in positions of leadership. I think there are more women that are in positions of actually being team members and executing. I think there is a decisive effort to try to represent and incorporate women into things like panels. Part of my job is, as the program manager for this IoT cybersecurity program, is to participate in lots of international conferences and panels, and I’ve been able to definitely see that shift where often I would be the only woman on one of these panels. Now sometimes it’s one, two, and sometimes we are the majority of women on some of these panels. So I’ve definitely seen more and more women participating in cybersecurity, both in positions of leadership and otherwise.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

And you had mentioned organizations and actions that they can take. What are some of the things that you’ve seen organizations institute to get more either women or other perspectives, other people into roles that maybe they hadn’t been in before?

KAT MEGAS

I think there are just some policy that I’ve seen be instituted. If I go to a conference, they may just say, “Sorry, we need to evenly represent both men and women on this panel,” for example. I have worked with organizations who I invite to workshops and panels that I am managing and running, and their own organizations have said to them, “You cannot participate in a panel if there is not fair and equitable distribution amongst the panelists.” So I’ve seen it from both sides, whether it’s something that I’m participating in or others are participating in mine.

I can only speak right now to my current organization, but I’ve seen women leaders in very senior leadership positions try to take on formal roles as a champion of women in the organization. And then I’ve also experienced—again, this is not so much the official policy—but I’ve seen these very senior women in leadership positions try to assign new leaders and try to mentor new female leaders and women leaders to ensure that there is a pipeline of both female and male leaders as they’re trying to ensure that there are people who can step in as they’re looking toward retirement.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

What are some things you’d like to see change for women project leaders in the future?

KAT MEGAS

I don’t want to have to change who I am to fit into the mold. I like the way I approach things. I like the fact that I am a consensus builder. I like the fact that I think I have the right answer, but I will always be open to a broader discussion. I would like to think that that would be a world where one day that would not be perceived as being indecisive or not being willing to take leadership or make the decision, and there would just be a recognition for different styles.

MUSICAL TRANSITION
STEVE HENDERSHOT 

Company cultures are also changing to reflect greater gender diversity, not only as a natural outgrowth of the fact that there are more women at the table, but also because companies are realizing it’s the only way they’ll be able to recruit and retain the talent they need.

I spoke with PMI Future 50 leader Sevi Rich. She’s currently senior portfolio manager of iron ore capital projects at mining giant BHP in Perth, Australia. She began her BHP career as a strategic planner, and part of her strategy for guiding BHP toward hiring more women is encouraging the company to cast a wide net.

MUSICAL TRANSITION
STEVE HENDERSHOT

How would you characterize the diversity and inclusion of your industry since you’ve joined? Mining, traditionally, hasn’t exactly been the most gender-balanced industry.

SEVI RICH

It has changed a lot, and it has improved massively. If you compare to five years ago, it will be a handful of women in leadership roles. Today, there’s a massive improvement. If you look at the organization, in my immediate team, I’m actually sitting at around 40 percent female ratio in my team, and it’s a project organization. My wider project organization that I’m part of, it is sitting at around 30 percent. So we came a long way, and there’s still more to be done because, ultimately, we want to be gender-balanced. We have to do a number of different things to achieve that. But if you go back to the leadership specifically, we still see the ratio is not being as high. If I’m talking about 30 percent across a project organization, it’s 15 percent potentially sitting on leadership roles. Even though it’s much better than five years ago, it’s still a long way to go.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

What are some of the unique challenges to hiring and developing women leaders in your particular industry? How do you get around them

SEVI RICH

So if you start with Australian context, as you know, Australia is an island and it’s far away from pretty much everywhere else in the world. And within Australia, distances are quite large. So there are lots of young families, or soon-to-be a young family, with children who live away from their parents. They have limited support to juggle kids and full-time job, and child care is really expensive here. So one key thing here in Australia is really enabling both parents to become a primary carer and give them paternity leave to enable them to do so. At BHP, we enable both parents to take four and a half months full-paid or nine months half-paid parental leave. And in return, this limits impact on either parent’s career.

And if you move on to the mining context, enablers and opportunities are really around the key challenges. The first one is about a limited diverse resource pool. There are a number of mining, engineering, construction and resource organizations, and we are all targeting the same small pool—STEM background, female candidates—and it’s quite small. So like some other organizations, at BHP, we also reach back to high schools, universities, through a number of programs to encourage more females to consider studying STEM but also considering careers in mining. That being said, there’s more we can do. And I think the future of learning is changing, and I think we will start to see organizations playing a larger role in training, teaching and educating.

The second challenge is about achieving a step change to increase female employee numbers at site-based roles. So again, this is not unique to mining companies—most resource development organizations, construction organizations, face the same issue. And some of the enablers for that that we’re considering right now is flexible work, and flexible work is not just for site-based roles. It’s for everyone, but specifically how can we design flexible work to make sure that will work for a site-based person? Or how can we come up with a FIFO roster—this is fly-in, fly-out roster—that will suit their family situation, and how can we improve site-lifestyle improvements? There’s also a certain perception about this type of roles, which hinders the diverse candidates to apply for the roles. Hence reconsidering how to best advertise to reach the broader pool of candidate is another strategy that we’re working on.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Mentorship is another key part of supporting future leaders. Is it important for women to have other women as mentors?

SEVI RICH

It’s a greatly valuable thing, but I don’t think we should limit it to just women leaders mentoring one another because, to be honest, we don’t have enough of them, and creating women’s, girls-only type of clubs to improve diversity I believe really contradicts with the intent of being inclusive. And without having male champions and mentors involved, that’ll also just be a number rather than a meaningful outcome.

If I go reflect on my own experience, the best mentor I ever had was through Women in Mining Western Australia, and he was an incredible male leader, Carl Adams. And I got so much out of that relationship, so much that I decided to give back as a mentor. I’ve been actively mentoring within BHP and Women in Mining since then. And if you go back to how the mentoring will work, I think it has to be really targeted. Mentees drive this. So an organization enables mentees to connect with the potential mentors, but mentees really need to know what they want to get out of the mentorship and be targeted in their approach so they know what sort of mentor they’re looking for and what is their goal to achieve through that relationship. Only in that way they can get to the point that they desire to achieve. And, of course, what they target could evolve over time.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Are there any specific moments from your own career that you keep in mind as you mentor others?

SEVI RICH

What we tend to do, we really try to box people to make sure that they fit into a certain profile. Or we actually are really prescriptive about who we’re looking for when we’re recruiting—number of years’ experience, number of specific project experience, trainings and all that—rather than looking at them holistically to see: Do they have the transferable skills? Do they have the right attitude and drive to actually do the job with the right support, training and coaching?

Years ago, a project director took a chance on me. My background is not project management, and I was in strategic planning then. He saw the potential in me. He saw my transferable skills, and he saw my drive. He wanted for me to consider a role, a study manager role. And when I took that, he kind of partnered me up, buddied me up with an experienced project manager to learn from the experience and also through the exposure that I’ll have on the job. So I think that’s my biggest learning, and that’s what I’ve been actively trying to do. I change how we advertise roles to enable us to reach the broader pool, because if you’re too rigid in your advertising, and if you’re looking for just expertise and number of years’ experience, you can never get diverse candidates coming into the organization.

MUSICAL TRANSITION
STEVE HENDERSHOT

Building an organization that develops women leaders means building a culture that values them—and that values the distinct perspectives, insights and communication styles they bring, rather than simply looking to see how many women can effectively imitate some calcified archetype of what a leader is supposed to say, do or look like.

Get that right, and you’ve not only opened your team and company to a wealth of talent, but also opened the door to the sort of new perspectives that can help you see things differently, find solutions where there had been barriers and unlock value that had been hidden.

Thanks again to our sponsor, PMTraining.com. From live virtual classes to online courses available on demand, PMTraining equips students to earn PMI certifications including the Project Management Professional, or PMP. And Projectified® listeners are eligible for discounts of up to $400 per class; just enter the link PMTraining.com/podcast.

NARRATOR

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