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Leadership Studies That Prove Women Make Great Project Managers

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In 2005, I was in high school, considering where to go to university. I toured New England, college after college, one after the other, searching for that tingle you’re supposed to get when “you know” you’ve entered the right campus. I found it, sort of, when visiting a school called Wells in New York. It had just transitioned from being a women’s college to coed, and all the classrooms I visited had 100% female students; only three men were students on campus.

The tingle came from wanting a women’s education. I ended up at a single-sex college called Agnes Scott College in Atlanta where I received a fantastic education—one, I’d argue, that was far better than the one I received at the University of Chicago for my master’s degree. The class sizes were small, there was an emphasis on cooperative learning, and the academic rigor far surpassed anything found at adjacent schools. Free of many common distractions found in U.S. higher education (such as a heavy drinking culture, Greek life, and 20-something boys), Agnes Scott was truly a college that changed my life.

At the same time as I was touring Wells, Larry Summers, the then-president of Harvard University, was getting himself into trouble. While the actual quote is long and convoluted, he gave a speech at a Boston conference that addressed the role of women in science. While conceding that corporate structures are far more likely to support married men than women and as a nod to “nurture vs nature,” Summers stated that he believes that women are biologically limited to achieve in science relative to men.

He was forced to resign the following year.

Women project management

I have mixed feelings about Summers’s statement. I do believe women and men’s brains work differently, which is part of the reason I think I benefited from single-sex education.There was no shortage of women excelling in math and science at my college, notably at a disproportionately higher level than at similar programs in coeducational schools from graduate school acceptance to number of conference presentations. Whether single-sex academic achievement is a function of differentiated teaching, a more academic environment, or simply self-selection via enrollment remains unknown.

The question of biology versus socialization is a debate that extends far beyond 2005 and one muddied with politics, discrimination, and stereotypes.

Business leaders, often disinterested in broader social issues, claim they don’t see gender, yet still disproportionately hire men over women for the same roles when they’re equally qualified.

Project management is not immune to this trend. In fact, one study finds that there’s a huge gender disparity across all major sectors within the project management field:

The top-five project management industries is 93.5% male and 6.5% female in construction, 71% male and 29% female in consulting, 52.1% male and 47.9% female in financial services, 68.7% male and 31.3% female in information technology, and 73.4% male and 26.6% female in telecommunications.

Job expectations after hiring are also lower for female project managers than male. For example, “Female project team members are almost twice as likely to be on projects costing $1 million or less.” In conjunction with that finding, “female team members are more likely to be dispersed from their project managers and to work on core teams… Both female project managers and team members may be locked in a vicious cycle of project assignments on lower-cost, smaller projects, leaving [female project managers] marginalized both geographically and culturally from power-gaining experiences in comparison to their male counterparts.” In other words, even when women get project management jobs, they’re not trusted with high-value projects.

The trend is unfortunate. When leaning back from gender stereotypes and looking at actual quantitative studies, women are actually set up to succeed in project management should they get the opportunity. For example, women are perceived as more effective business leaders than men.

A study called “Gender and Perceptions of Leadership Effectiveness: A Meta-Analysis of Contextual Moderators,” published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, focused on how male and female leaders were perceived by themselves and their subordinates.

Women project management

The men in the study largely thought they were outstanding leaders. The study found that “men rated themselves as significantly more effective than women rated themselves in lower level supervisor positions and senior leader positions. There were nonsignificant gender differences in self-ratings for middle management positions.” Yet, when compared to how direct reports viewed their male and female managers, subordinates largely found their female leaders to be the more competent party. The authors explain:

We found that women were seen as more effective (by others) when they held senior-level management positions… the notion that cognitive load leads to the increased use of stereotypes holds true; however, rather than relying on stereotypes of men’s greater leadership effectiveness, organizational members may rely upon a different, newer stereotype: that women are more effective leaders.

Ironically, stereotypes now support a view of female competence instead of working against it. And while project management research shows that there is no correlation between project failure and project manager gender, there are plenty of studies that show the value of trust and respect between managers and team members. Given that women are seen as more competent leaders and are underrepresented in the field, businesses may consider female project managers for the sake of team cohesion and success.

But team-building isn’t the only part of leadership. In fact, a willingness to take risks (calculated risks with project management software, of course) is often part of being a good project manager. Stereotypes in social science tend to support men as the more risk-taking gender, but new research doesn’t support that finding.

For example, in a 2016 study described in Harvard Business Review, researchers Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman found that female leaders are “bolder” than their male counterparts. They defined boldness as:

  • Challenges standard approaches
  • Creates an atmosphere of continual improvement
  • Does everything possible to achieve goals
  • Gets others to go beyond what they originally thought possible
  • Energizes others to take on challenging goals
  • Quickly recognizes situations where change is needed
  • Has the courage to make needed changes

Their findings are represented in the chart below:

Women project management

While quantifying what makes leadership good or better is challenging at best, willingness to change course for the betterment of the project is a good sign of quality leadership. Another is evaluations from a leader’s peers, direct reports, and bosses. The same researchers conducted a study in 2012 and found that female managers outperformed men in 12 out of 16 leadership competencies after evaluating 7,280 managers.

The competencies include:

  • Takes initiative
  • Practices self-development
  • Displays high integrity and honesty
  • Drives for results
  • Develops others
  • Inspires and motivates others
  • Builds relationships
  • Collaboration and teamwork
  • Establishes stretch goals
  • Champions change
  • Solves problems and analyzes issues
  • Communicates powerfully and prolifically

For the remaining four competencies (connects the group to the outside world, innovates, shows technical expertise, and develops strategic perspectives), there were no significant differences between genders.

So women are great leaders and project managers… now what?

While women are disproportionately rated as good leaders compared to their male peers, they’re not given the same opportunities to take on high-risk, high-reward projects across industries. Whether it’s fear that women are incompetent, stemming from lingering gender workforce stereotypes, or because women choose to avoid pursuing project management careers, businesses are missing out.

At Capterra, we want to do our part in supporting the future of women in project management and technology. That’s why we’re supporting Girls Who Code, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching middle and high school girls how to code.  

If you want to help create the pipeline to get more women into technology and project management, leave a software review on our site (Slack, Microsoft Project, Jira—you name it!). For every confirmed  review we receive in December, we’ll donate $1 to Girls Who Code.

Biology doesn’t seem to be a problem for those future leaders, and we’re in the business of clearing their paths to success, especially given the undervalued rate of women’s managerial achievement in the generations who have come before.

Looking for Project Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Project Management software solutions.

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About the Author

Rachel Burger

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Rachel is a content manager for Capterra, a free online resource that quickly matches businesses to their software needs. She specializes in project management tips, tools, and tricks . She also runs her own blog on content marketing. On the rare occasion Rachel isn't writing, she's reading, hiking, jogging, or spending time with her friends and family.

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