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Opinion

Are women better project leaders than men? It all depends…

If you are putting together a project team, should you pick a man or a woman as the leader? Eric Woodcock responds to Sharon De Mascia’s Guest Editorial.

 

When Sharon De Mascia asked me, a man, to comment on her article Are women better suited to project management than men? the first words that came into my head were ‘mine field’ and ‘elephant trap’.  However, a bit of thought yielded an answer that is true of so many questions like this: 'It all depends.' And for most of us what it depends on most of all is our experience. So I am not going to seek a definitive answer to Sharon’s question but reflect on what I have noticed in working for over 40 years in a variety of industries and sectors.

When I started work as an engineer in the 1970s, having a women in any technical or senior management role was considered remarkable. Entrenched and traditional attitudes meant that very few women had the chance to demonstrate whether they were good project managers. Since then there has been a very noticeable change. Working for a global IT consulting firm in the 1990s and 2000s I saw not only that many of our own best project managers were women, but so were the senior client staff we worked with. Nowadays I run project management courses at universities and around half of my students are women.

Part of this change is due to professional bodies having gone out of their way to bring women into their ranks and laud their achievements. As well as the project management institutes, bodies like the engineering institutions and managers’ associations encourage female students to enter careers that will almost inevitably involve managing projects.  

We can expect to see more female project managers over time as the cohorts of technically qualified girls move through college, apprenticeships and universities into the workforce. Even so, it remains true that too few girls are pointed towards technical and business subjects at school. We must do more about that.

Having more female project managers has to be good for society and the economy. But it is not entirely due to the thankful demise of misogynistic attitudes. It is also due to the acute shortage of people with technical and managerial skills in this country. We need the women!

Some people suggest that women might be less committed to the long hours (and often the travel and time away from home) that managing projects  entails – possibly because of family concerns.  However, many men face similar dilemmas. It is up to individuals to decide what they are prepared to do and either seek or avoid projects accordingly.

So, having worked with male and female project managers over four decades, have I noticed major differences?

In truth I haven’t. The differences I have noticed are more about work style rather than a fundamentally different approach to managing a project. The women, on the whole, have tended to have a more precise eye for detail and have been a bit more conscientious about things like reporting and following processes. They are typically very good at time management. And female project managers are certainly alert to issues around team welfare. Perhaps it is true that women feel they have to try harder; but they also produce the goods.

When I had to choose who would manage a project at the IT consulting firm, whether the candidates were male or female didn’t come into the assessment at all, any more than their age or their family background. The key problem was how to get the best person available for that particular assignment. And that tended to come down to three things: the sector the project was in; the nature of the project; and the type of team.

Consider these examples:

  • Sector-specific knowledge. I once ran a project to install a customer-facing IT system for a pharmaceutical company. Within my business unit I had a number of people with sector experience and one of them was a woman who had worked as an IT manager within large pharmaceutical companies. That experience (and knowledge of how such firms work) was crucial in ensuring that the right questions were asked about the design of the system, and it stood the best chance of meeting the client’s needs. 
  • Nature of the project. Some projects involve collaborating with other suppliers where a good deal of assertive diplomacy is required. Look to the three female US Secretaries of State in the past 20 years (Albright, Rice and Clinton) to realise this is not a male preserve.  Other projects face tight deadlines where tough decisions have to be taken. Human nature being what it is, it appears to be the case that under pressure certain types of men are better at taking orders from a woman than a man! 
  • The type of team. If a team has been successful when led by a woman on previous projects then there are good reasons for trying to keep them together. On the other hand, assembling a team and getting them to work together can be an enormous challenge – especially when the team extends across a number of partners working together. Again I was fortunate in my business unit in having an exceptional female change manager. She could not only lead projects focussed on changing business processes and behaviour for clients, she could also forge an excellent team from a disparate group of people and lead them effectively.

Managing projects, especially high-value, high-risk complex ones, is always going to be a major challenge for whoever the project manager is. Just like men, women will prove themselves up to leading these most difficult projects by their performance on a series of increasingly tough assignments. In every case, those appointing the project manager should be asking themselves who is the most qualified, experienced and expert person for the job at hand.

So to attempt a slightly more helpful answer to Sharon’s question, I would say that in real life different types of people are best suited to managing different types of project. Whether they are a woman or a man has nothing to do with it.

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