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Women, leadership and project management: the real story

What do women think are the most important project leadership skills, and do they use them? If not, why not? Elizabeth Harrin responds to Sharon De Mascia’s Guest Editorial.


While I was researching my book, Customer-Centric Project Management, I came across a piece of research in the journal Project Management about women’s leadership skills. ‘Project management leadership behaviours and frequency of use by female project managers’ by Charlotte Neuhauser, PMP, looks at what women think are the most important leadership characteristics and then whether or not they use them in the course of managing projects.

In response to Sharon De Mascia’s Guest Editorial, Are women better suited to project leadership than men? here is my summary of the leadership behaviours noted as important for project managers and how women performed against them, and then the three conclusions from Neuhauser’s study.

The most important leadership behaviours for project managers

The important behaviour types for project managers are (from most important to least important):

  • influence;
  • inspirational motivation;
  • intellectual stimulation;
  • managerial skills;
  • individualised consideration (treating project team members as individuals, not ‘resources’);
  • attributed charisma;
  • contingent reward (that is, clarifying goals and benefits for project team members).

These apply to both male and female project managers.

Neuhauser’s study found that the more important women felt the behaviour was, the less frequently they said they displayed it. Looking at the mean response scores in the study, no behaviour was cited ‘almost always’. Either the women in the study really aren’t that good at project management or they were judging themselves very harshly!

The most used behaviour by female project managers

The study broke down the behaviour types and assessed the most and least used actions by female project managers. The five most commonly reported behaviours were:

  1. recommends promotions for exceptional performance;
  2. recommends pay increases or bonuses for exceptional performance;
  3. delegates authority for decisions to team members;
  4. gets ideas accepted by superiors;
  5. people are proud to be associated with them.

The five things women did most infrequently were:

  1. earns respect of others through demonstrating competence by personal task performance;
  2. inspires others by setting an example of courage, dedication and self-sacrifice;
  3. uses time efficiently;
  4. negotiates with colleagues, suppliers and clients (note that this is just about any negotiating, not negotiating effectively);
  5. offers encouragement, advice and assistance when team members need help.

These survey results surprised me. The women who responded are happy to delegate, but not to offer help to their team? Their supervisors say their ideas are great, but they don’t negotiate? People are happy to work with them, but they consider themselves disorganised time wasters who don’t complete their own tasks competently?

This conflicted view of managing projects strikes me as inconsistent. Was there ever a better argument for knowing your own strengths and weaknesses and being honest about your capabilities? This is Imposter Syndrome in action.

I strongly believe that the 61 women surveyed were judging themselves too harshly. A huge 75 per cent of them agreed that women think women are weaker project managers than men! If we don’t believe in ourselves, who will?

Neuhauser’s research also asked female project managers to report on how they thought they were perceived by men. Her study drew three conclusions.

1. Men don’t think women are weaker project managers

Women believe that men don’t think women are weaker at managing projects than they are.

I’m glad women believe that men have the sense to think of women as adequate project managers, as we don’t apparently believe that about ourselves. This finding contrasts sharply to the statistic above which says 75 per cent of women surveyed believed that women think women are weaker project managers than men and presents another contradiction to common sense: how can we believe we are worse than men but at the same time think men see us as equals?

I don’t get it, and I’m sure it’s not a compliment to male intelligence. It could either be interpreted as men being too stupid to recognise our faults, or as women being too harsh on each other.

2. Men don’t take women seriously

Nearly 60 per cent of survey respondents believed that female project managers are not taken seriously by men. I don’t think that this is a statistic limited to the project management community. I expect it applies to professional women in a range of careers.

However, the figure was much lower than I was expecting, which is great. I would have liked to see the breakdown of results by age, because I have a feeling that the younger you are, the less likely you are to be taken seriously at work by men (and that goes for young men too).

3. Women are less committed than men

The question asked in the study was a long one. Female project managers 'have less organisational commitment and professional capability than their male counterparts'. This had the strongest, clearest response from the women surveyed, with a massive 95 per cent of them agreeing or strongly agreeing with this.

There’s no rationale given for this in the research, so here are some reasons why I think women believe this about themselves:

  • we are more committed to our families than to our employers;
  • we see men working while other women take parental leave for family emergencies;
  • we don’t define ourselves by our jobs, so this translates to 'not being committed';
  • we don’t see women being promoted as often as men, which leads to 'having less professional capability'.

Perhaps men are better at covering up their faults at work and don’t beat themselves up about them so much.

But in reality, who knows why the women surveyed thought that men were more committed and professionally better than they were? Maybe they had all gone out for team manicures while the men stayed in the office and slaved away. Maybe the women surveyed genuinely were under-performing at their jobs, working in teams with highly performing and successful male colleagues.


Neuhauser says:

The sample of this study had a stronger belief that they are weaker project managers than they believe men perceive them to be. Comparing that response with the perception of this group that women have less commitment and professional capability than men seems to point out a reinforcement with their self-perception of less competence… It is perplexing why female project managers view other female project managers as weaker than their male counterparts and yet do not perceive males viewing females as weaker.

In short, I conclude that the research study didn’t turn up anything useful or conclusive and further research should be done to find out if there really is anything to this.

What do you think – is it worth doing more research into this subject or not?

Read the research: Neuhauser C 2007. Project Management Leadership Behaviours and Frequency of Use by Female Project Managers. Project Management Journal, 38(1), 21–31.

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