With the release of AIPM’s 2021 Gender Equity Report, we speak to four female senior leaders in project management, about the current gender diversity challenge and the areas where improvement is still needed.

One of the findings from the report shows that while numbers are improving, there are still far more men than women both studying project management and working in the profession, with AIPM’s female student membership currently sitting at 31% and overall membership at 23%.

The report indicated that to grow the number of women in project management, it was important to increase the number of students enrolling in appropriate university degrees and to bring the project management discipline to more female dominated industries.

Julieanne Saxty, Client Leader and Director at Aurecon recalls early in her career, a barrier she came across was the lack of networks she had access to as a graduate and young professional, and the number of female leaders she had to look up to.

“I overcame this by reaching out to fellow women in project management and seeking a coaching relationship with them or I used their career growth and examples of good decisions, as inspiration on how I could progress… We need to continue to target emerging professionals to firstly enter the profession, this is at the university or emerging professional stage and then once we have talent in the door, we need to support them.”

Divya Panwar, Technology Product Owner and Chapter Lead at Telstra also says she faced challenges when transitioning from Human Resources, which has traditionally more women, to the technology space.

“In most of my projects I was either the only woman or one of few women in the technical teams, which was a significant change from my previous experience. I have seen that women have to work a lot harder to raise their profile across both technology and management roles.”

As women progress in their career, the balancing act between family and work commitments can often be difficult to juggle. The report also revealed that attitudes towards flexible work has been an area of seismic shift during 2020. Infrastructure Australia reported that almost a third of Australia’s workforce worked from home during the pandemic, with a third of these hoping to continue post COVID-19.

Anna Broughton, Director at NS Group says that while she has had the privilege of a career with no real boundaries or barriers, and her dream is that in the future there will be more women in project management who can say the same, one challenge she did face was starting a family.

“I was the first to take maternity leave in the company and I found it challenging to navigate what I was entitled to… After returning from my second maternity leave, I was promoted to State Manager and took this experience to develop a maternity/paternity policy for the group which has received positive feedback.”

Divya Panwar also says it took some adjustment in the early years of managing both a family and a professional career. “I have two young boys and to take on any new roles requires time and effort and can alter the work-life balance. I worked part time for many years while my boys were young, missing out on roles where I was not provided that flexibility,” Panwar explains.

Similarly, Julieanne Saxty says she also faced the challenge of navigating returning to work, and what comes with being a part time worker. “I realised fairly quickly I could definitely be both a professional and a mother, but it would come with hard work, ambition and sustained passion,” she explains. “As a PM I found the part time nature of my tenure at times challenging, as projects don’t stop on your days off or fit in with your agreed reduced hours. This was a learning curve, but one that was surmountable with support.”

Fellow project manager, Kim Lenox, who works as the Manager Commercial Supply Agreements at the ARTC and is the President of Women in Building and Associated Services (WIBAS) has always worked in roles in construction and infrastructure and says that working in a male dominated industry for her is a choice. “It has posed some challenges over the course of my career, but it has also been the catalyst for the work I do in advocacy, mentoring and supporting women, which is my passion.”

In Lenox’s experience a barrier facing women progressing, particularly into leadership roles can be perception.

“Behaviours or styles that may be perceived as dominant or aggressive from women would be perfectly acceptable from a male equivalent, and possibly even praised. I have often seen ambitious women become a threat to someone senior to them and quickly be pigeonholed in this way. This can be overt but is often part of some unconscious bias. We’ve still got a long way to go in this space.”

How organisations can support female project managers

1. Become advocates for women

As Kim Lenox explains there are some real opportunities for leaders, CEOs and Boards to become true advocates for women. This entails:

  • identifying women within the organisation for roles or projects that they may not have visibility of through sponsorship;
  • understanding that just because a role is not exactly what they are doing right now doesn’t mean that they can’t do it; and
  • supporting their growth and development through personalised professional development plans.

“There are also plenty of women who don’t need that kind of support and just need to find the right companies and leaders who can see them for exactly what they can bring to the table,” adds Lenox.

2. Ensure there are flexible working arrangements

According to Julieanne Saxty, flexible working arrangements are essential to attracting and retaining females.

“Most workplaces have moved to flexible working options and I believe a choice between home and the office is now the new normal. Flexible working arrangements support women who currently need them, but also helps those women seeking to use them in the future.”

Saxty sees these arrangements as not just for childcaring, but for health and wellbeing as well as caring for other family members or other lifestyle commitments.

“The key is to keep women in project management and allow them to work their way into management and leadership positions. This will then create a cycle of emerging female project professionals being attracted to the profession because they can see themselves or their future self, succeeding in it,” adds Saxty.

3. Create programs for transitioning back to work

Divya Panwar says there needs to be solid programs to transition back to work post parental leave. “For my second maternity leave I had an amazing opportunity to work from home while supporting a critical delivery. It gave me the confidence of working post the break but also ensure that I could focus on program delivery for my clients.”

“Telstra has made updates to the parental leave whereby parental leave can now be taken in one block or multiple blocks, and can be used to return to work on a part-time basis as needed. It’s making it easier for parents on leave to keep in touch – taking home their laptop for the duration of their leave,” adds Panwar.

4. Shine a light on successful female PMs

We all look for role models when we are developing and growing into our careers, that’s why Anna Broughton says it’s important for women to see successful females within their own companies and across their profession.

“If you can see her, you can be her,” explains Anna Broughton. “We need to continue to shine a light on females who have achieved leadership positions.”

“If you don’t currently have women in your leadership team then I would encourage seeking the advice of a trusted senior female, or reaching out to your wider team, on how you can improve gender equity in your workplace. There’s a lot of value in diversity of thinking and experiences. It just makes good business sense!”

Tips for progressing in your career as a female project professional

We asked each senior leader what advice they had for fellow females looking to follow the career path of a PM and this is what they had to say:

1. Go for it!

Kim Lenox says, “do your research, develop a plan, network and talk to other people that are already in the role you want to be in. Do whatever works for you in terms of goal setting, such as apps, vision boards and a timeline for example. But also, don’t be afraid to leave where you are, if it isn’t going to give you that opportunity.”

2. Believe in your value

“Show the business you work for that you can think strategically about your career and the company and promotion will follow,” says Anna Broughton. “The ability females have to bring teams together should be harnessed for the improvement of an industry as a whole and to increase the success of projects that create great outcomes for the wider community.”

3. Stay connected

According to Julieanne Saxty finding a strong mentor is essential. “I have always had strong female leaders as mentors, and this has been one of the biggest support mechanisms for me as I grew into a leadership role. Having strong senior women to look up to as a mentor or coach has been essential. I’ve been extremely lucky at Aurecon to have several mentors who have inspired and challenged me to reach further and higher than I thought was possible.”

4. Invest in lifelong learning

Divya Panwar recommends continuous self-development through upskilling in new areas. “Whether it’s developing yourself personally or professionally, learning a new skill, you need to invest in yourself so you can pay it forward and also help inspire others,” says Panwar. “I set a goal for myself recently of completing the Product Management course from RMIT to help build on my current role as a Technical Product owner. I have also had the opportunity to gain knowledge with Prince2 and Agile certifications, which assisted when Telstra moved to Agile ways of working.”

AIPM is passionate about supporting women in project management. Read the findings of our 2021 Gender Equity Report, around how we can better support women in the project profession. As Anna Broughton puts it “the opportunities for female PMs are endless.”