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The Only Woman in the Room: Fierce Skills for Women in Project Management

The Only Woman in the Room: Fierce Skills for Women in Project Management

Women in Project Management ought to be a non-issue. I look forward to the time when half the population contributes to half of the senior roles and is responsible for delivering half of all projects globally.

Maybe then, no one will feel the need to read this excellent article by our guest author, Anita Phagura. But today’s reality is less than ideal. Everywhere, women face challenges, barriers, and yes.. discrimination that men do not suffer. And it’s also true that, in every country, minorities of any sort are disadvantaged at work. And for no better reason than ‘there are fewer of you’ or ‘you are different.

Well… Here’s a flash. Difference is good. Diversity delivers better results, smarter solutions, and wiser decisions. So, let’s grow up and embrace it!

Let’s get Real

But, if you are a woman or anybody facing these challenges, Anita wants you to ’embrace your misfit’. To show up at work as your authentic self. And to be fierce about the way to do this. But she isn’t just an idealist. She offers you real tools and skills to help you take charge of your career and make your own choices.

And he doesn’t just do this through her Fierce Project Management community. She has generously contributed one of our best-ever guest articles. Male or Female, black or white, or none of these…You can learn a lot from this article…

The Only Woman in the Room: Fierce Skills for Women in Project Management

Contents

Anita’s guide for Women in Project Management and for anyone who finds resistance to being who they truly are is in 10 parts:

  1. The Only Woman in the Room
  2. Being a Miss-fit
  3. I Wasn’t Alone: There are Lots of ‘Only Women in the Room’
  4. What I Wish I had Known
  5. Ally-building
  6. Amplifying your Message  
  7. Assertive Boundaries
  8. Authentic Leadership
  9. Doing More than a Good Job
  10. Learn More…

So, over to Anita…

The Only Woman in the Room 

As a woman working in a male-dominated industry of railway and construction, it wasn’t a surprise when there were a lot of men around me.  Actually, there were a fair few women in the office too. 

However, I was still often the only woman in a project team meeting, or maybe even at an after-work social… There were some things that were obvious to pick up, like how that made me a combination of:

  • sometimes invisible
  • other times my visibility was heightened
  • …and sometimes it even managed to be both

For example, the classic apology after someone tells a crude joke, or swears, and then realizes ‘a lady is a present’. For the record, things are either okay to say at work, or they are not, regardless of the gender of those in the room! The same goes for race, sexuality, religion…

Different in the Room

So, there were definitely those times. But, mostly, I didn’t think that my gender was that relevant not to my career success… And I certainly didn’t think about race or ethnicity being relevant at all (I’m British Indian, by the way. And that often meant I was ‘different’ in the room too). 

These parts of my identity weren’t particularly relevant to me at work. It was like I could put them in a box, focus on working hard and doing a good job and that would be enough – to be recognized, and to be fairly rewarded. 

Being a Miss-fit

However, when I got promoted to become a line manager, I started to notice biases and prejudices. I realized that people said certain things to me as a woman leading a team, which they didn’t say to my male colleagues. I was too demanding, too patronizing, too sensitive…. 

Yet it didn’t matter that my boss at the time would bang on the desk in anger in a supply chain or client meeting.  I was the one left questioning my leadership style.

Overt Discrimination against this Woman in Project Management 

I had a number of experiences from:

  • Finding out I was paid less than a male colleague
  • Discovering the all-female team that I led had earned a derogatory gender-related nickname 
  • Being bullied because I was a young woman line manager

I looked upwards to find that I had no senior female role models… 

All this whilst I was managing high-profile projects with challenging deadlines and taking on a departmental leadership role. I was left wounded and scarred. I was burnt out, my mental health suffered, and I brought home a lot of stress. 

‘What’s the Point?’

It also killed my ambition. Because ‘what was the point’ of trying when it seemed like there was a ‘boys’ club’ acting as the senior management team.

I Wasn’t Alone: There are Lots of ‘Only Women in the Room’ 

I felt alone going through these challenges. This was until I realised that most women I spoke to had their own story of how their gender meant a harder road, with more obstacles. 

Introducing Fierce Project Management 

So, I formed Fierce Project Management in 2019 on the back of my research, where I listened to 100 women working on projects. 

That research found that a majority of women experienced biases, prejudices, or discrimination related to their identity. This could be based on:

  • Gender
  • Sexuality
  • Age
  • Race
  • Disability 
  • or other aspect

Or, often, it would be a combination of these. And often, these women also felt alone. The themes that arose most often were feeling like they:

  • weren’t being heard
  • weren’t being taken seriously and
  • didn’t have fair access to opportunities

Cultural Issues in the Way of Women in Project Management 

It is abundantly clear that there are cultural issues within our project environments that we need to address, to allow women, and those who feel ‘different’ or underrepresented, to flourish. This is an important issue, and the focus shouldn’t be on ‘fixing’ women. This is, dangerously, where the narrative can often fall. 

However, anyone who feels different in their work environment cannot just wait for that to happen, so we can flourish and succeed within these spaces. Knowing that our journey will be harder means we can be more proactive in taking control of our career and recognizing the skills beyond doing a good job.

The Underrepresented and Misfits of Project Management

This article addresses some of the ways we, the underrepresented and misfits of Project Management, can succeed on our terms in these spaces and also create a ripple effect of change through our actions.

What I Wish I had Known

The truth is that I would have done things differently if I knew then what I know now. There are important skills that we need, beyond doing a ‘good job’, if we want for career success. I don’t want others to have to deal with the experiences I had to. So, I developed the Fierce Project Management Model to support my coaching clients to overcome the obstacles, embrace their misfit, and achieve their version of career success. 

The Fierce Project Management Model for Women in Project Management… and anyone who feels different

I developed the model with women in mind. But, actually, at its core it works for anyone; anyone who has felt different because of their identity or because of their leadership style. After all, women aren’t the only ones who are judged and feel under pressure to conform. 

The Fierce Project Management Model helps project leaders to identify what career success means to them. It supports them to:

  • Navigate the external barriers
  • Ascend over any self-made obstacles 
  • Take action to actively create the career success they desire

The Four Cornerstones of Fierce Project Management 

Fierce Project Management is also built on four cornerstone skills, to support this outcome:

  • Ally-building
  • Amplifying your message  
  • Assertive boundaries
  • Authentic leadership

Ally-building

Our career success doesn’t happen in a vacuum. And we absolutely are still dependent on what other people say and do. (Although, of course, that is not the whole story, and we have autonomy in deciding our own actions and behaviors). 

We do need other people to open doors for us, because most jobs (and other opportunities, like being awarded particular projects) come from decisions that other people make, which are influenced by those they know. Most jobs are not formally advertised. Instead, many are awarded or even created because of a prior relationship. 

Meaningful Relationships

We often know that for our projects to be successful, we need to build meaningful relationships with our:

  • Project team
  • Supply chain
  • Client 
  • Stakeholders

This is absolutely true for our careers too.  

Back then when I thought doing a good job was enough, I did naturally build relationships. Of course I did; because it mattered for my projects and it’s part of my skill set and approach as a project manager. But, I didn’t invest too much time beyond the core requirement, because I was too busy with my head down delivering my project objectives. Sometimes I would want to rush right through the social part of meetings and get down to the agenda because we had work to do.

Now, I’m not saying waste time and have endless meetings for the sake of it. But, do take the time and invest your energies into building meaningful relationships at work, with your:

  • project team
  • stakeholders
  • and your senior leadership team, where you can

This doesn’t mean we have to get on with everyone and create allies with everyone we know. But do take time to create and nurture relationships where there is a connection beyond your day job.  

The N-word: Networking

You would have heard about the importance of networking and it does remain incredibly important. It is the way we build allies inside and outside of our workplace. 

The idea of networking scared me… It felt icky and inconvenient. Who wants to go out-of-hours and talk to people you don’t know at some strange event, make bizarre small talk, and hand them a business card? Bleurgh! 

I absolutely couldn’t imagine anything worse. Even now! And yet, here I am telling you it is important. Well, the important part is to do it in a way that works for you.

The Myth of Introverts

Personally, I’m an introvert. And it is absolutely a myth that introverts can’t network. 

For me, that meant realizing small talk doesn’t work for me. So, instead of ‘networking’, I could be ‘connecting’. Connecting with people and building genuine relationships. A really significant way for me to do this now is through using social media. I particularly use LinkedIn, but also Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter

My Networking Community for Women in Project Management 

You can find networking communities such as The Fierce Project Management Allyship on Facebook. This is a global community of project managers across different industries. 

Events too are still a good place for ‘connecting’. Whether that is online or in-person, pick events that interest you rather than just ‘for the sake of it’. Aim to have meaningful conversations and maintain your connections, for example, through LinkedIn.

Building Allies

When building allies, the metric of your success isn’t necessarily:

  • the number of people who liked your last post
  • how many people are in your social network
  • or how many colleagues sign your birthday card at work

Although, of course, the more connections we have, the broader the reach of our network. The important part is about building meaningful connections so that these people genuinely will support us if they are able to. And, likewise, we would do the same for them.

The Importance of Reciprocity in Allyship

Important is the gift of reciprocity – that we will help our allies, and our allies will support us too. Although it doesn’t have to be in a tit-for-tat way when we have built genuine connections. Sometimes you can feel you don’t have much to ‘give’. But you do. This could be:

  • Recommendations
  • Introductions
  • Sharing a useful post or article based on something they have said in conversation

Beyond Allies: Coaches, Mentors, Sponsors

As well as allies, we may seek coaches, mentors, and sponsors to support our career development. Coaches and mentors are people who can guide and support us (a coach helps us find our own answers, and a mentor is more directive). And a sponsor also will proactively seek out opportunities for us, opening the doors we cannot open ourselves, and inviting us to the table where decisions are made.  

And, of course, as you grow in your career, there will come a time to pay it forward, and yourself act as a coach, a mentor, or a sponsor.

Bonus Tip: Stand with People who Need your Presence

Being an ally at work, means supporting others who might be dealing with challenges, prejudices, and biases; especially if they are from an underrepresented group. If you witness behaviors that diminish someone, then do your best to stand with them, and let them know they are not alone, as well as calling out the inappropriate behavior. 

Amplify Your Message 

Here’s a million-dollar question for you: 

What are people saying about you when you’re not in the room?

Okay, most likely we don’t know the exact answer, because we are not in the room. But what would you like them to be saying about you? Ponder on this for a few minutes and then reflect how likely you think that is.

We will not always be in the ‘room’ when important decisions are made, or opportunities arise that could impact our career development. So, this is where we need our allies and sponsors to advocate for us. 

Brief Your Allies

I would suggest that, ideally, you want your allies to have at least two things in mind when talking about us in these spaces: 

  1. Our skills 
    What makes you damn good at your job and the wins you have had along the way.
  2. What you actually want
    …in terms of opportunities and next career steps. Is there a particular type of project you want to work on, a particular connection you value, an opportunity or career step you are seeking?

With these things in mind, they will be selling your skillsets and connecting you with opportunities that are within their influence. This is incredibly powerful for your career success. 

Communicate Your Brand

So, it is important that you communicate your value and your wants, and that we ‘amplify’ your message by sharing widely and consistently. You can do this, in part, through what other people are saying about you (your personal brand). But is also validated by what you say and do, and how you behave. 

For example, it wouldn’t work to build a personal brand that showcased ‘my amazing financial skills’ when in reality I can do no more than get by. If that is not where my skills excel, I need to find a different basis for my personal brand.

You can influence what others will say about you in terms of what you tell and show them. The reality is often people are busy doing their own things to really take notice of all of your wins at work, and how excellently you have navigated a work crisis. Because, sometimes, you have done something so well that others won’t even notice, and they are busy dealing with their own stuff.

Self-promotion

Self-promotion is an important skill, which simply means ‘telling people about your wins, and the good things you have done, and are capable of doing’. We are primed to do this in a job interview or a workplace appraisal but if you only showcase your excellence then, you are only using a fraction of the influence available to you. 

Get in the habit of celebrating your wins and the things you are doing well. Share positive feedback and quantify, where you can, the impact you are having. 

Women in Project Management can be Penalized

This can feel uncomfortable, and we can even get penalized for being ‘boastful’. This especially impacts women, who are often expected to conform to social norms of being ‘modest’. This is compounded for people of different ethnicities and cultures, who can also be subject to these or other norms. But this is an important skill for your career success. 

My advice for navigating a balance of self-promotion without it being icky and detrimental, is to advocate for yourself but also play a part in creating a culture where everyone celebrates their wins. 

Bonus Tip: Starting to Build that Culture

Start meetings with wins not just your own but for all the team too.

Assertive Boundaries 

Being confident and assertive is important to your career success. But, specifically, I want to focus on the need for being assertive with your boundaries. 

What does that mean?

When we are part of an under-represented group, we can be subject to many assumptions and biases. This can put us at more risk of imposter syndrome, stress, burnout, and mental health challenges – in part because we are frequently having to battle these assumptions and biases. Project Management is already one of the most stressful professions, so it is essential that you do look after your mental and emotional wellbeing. 

The biases and prejudices can also mean you have more to ‘prove’, or that people in your organization will make expectations about the work you do and how you do it. For instance, when I became a ‘trusted’ member of the team in one organization, I was given extra work to do which was beyond my remit. Specifically, it was the printing and admin. Yet this was not asked of my male colleague who had a lighter workload than I did.  

If we stick firmly to our boundaries, we are protecting ourselves and being clear to our organization and colleagues how best we can support them. 

Asserting Your Boundaries 

Asserting your boundaries can feel risky, because you could ‘upset’ someone and not show willingness and flexibility. However, in the long run, it is also a risk to continually bend and mold yourself to suit everyone else’s needs. 

But of course, there will be times where it is absolutely okay to adjust your boundaries, and exercise some give and take. Perhaps this will flow from reciprocity, but you should consider whether it is something you are able and willing to do, and what the impact is of adjusting your boundaries. 

There are different ways to assert your boundaries, but first you must be clear on where they lie. Consider what are the boundaries which will best support you. Your boundaries may be about things like the:

  • Workload you take on
  • Times you work (and don’t work)
  • Behaviors you are willing to accept

Bonus Tip: Respect other People’s Boundaries

Respect other people’s boundaries. And, if you don’t know, then ask. For example, if you’re about to pop a meeting in the diary assuming people can start work early, stay late, or work through lunch just because you can, take a pause and check (or find an alternative slot). This will reinforce a work culture that you can benefit from too.

Authentic Leadership 

I didn’t necessarily realize I was wearing a mask and not showing up as my full self at work. Except that, on reflection, there were certain things about:

  • How I would show up
  • Be careful not to discuss aspects of my identity at work 
  • The many times that I would question myself because I heard a message about how I needed to be to ‘fit in’

The need to be authentic seems like such easy advice. Of course, we will be ourselves – because who else will we be? 

The Challenge for Women in Project Management to Show-up Authentically

However, in practice, we don’t always show up authentically and vulnerably because it could:

  • Hurt us personally
  • Damage the image of us or our career success 
  • We may feel we need to conform to fit in with our colleagues 

Especially if you’re ‘different’ and you consistently hear messages of the way you should be, around here. 

These fears can be entirely valid in many cultures, and so we may choose to wear that mask or some armor before we allow others in. However, when you let go of the idea of fitting in, and have deep confidence in your own leadership style and your own values, then you will be more fulfilled and less impacted by other people’s judgments. 

Responding to Feedback

Being open to feedback, and being adaptable, are powerful skills in the workplace. However, it’s important to recognize that not all feedback is created equal. People can give their feedback through their own lenses and biases, rather than what is necessarily the ‘best’ advice for you. So, it is worth assessing any feedback you receive, before you decide what to do with it. 

Bonus tip: Be Equally Thoughtful about Your own Feedback

Be mindful of the feedback you give to others. Is it coming from a judgement of how you think people ought to behave in this workplace, influenced from the cultures you’ve experienced so far? 

Doing More than a Good Job

Assess where you are now with each of these skillsets and consider how you can develop them. Recall, they are:

  • Ally-building
  • Amplifying your message  
  • Assertive boundaries
  • Authentic leadership

Remember, these are skills that you can develop with practice. Even just bringing these cornerstones into your awareness will have an impact in reminding you to do more than a good job. 

Be fierce, and bring your authentic self to work.

Learn More about Diversity, Inclusion, and Women in Project Management…

If you want further support to step up your fierce leadership skills to achieve your version of career success then get in touch ( fierceprojectmanagement.com) 

How to Support Diversity and Inclusion in Your Team

If you are committed to making diversity and inclusion work, take a look at this video…

Building Inclusive Teams: A Conversation with Anita Phagura of Fierce Project Management

And, for lots of practical advice – and more of Anita Phagura’s wisdom, take a look at this…

And you can sign up for the Fierce Projects Newsletter.

What are Your Thoughts?

We welcome your thoughts on this important topic and, of course, your questions. As always, we will respond to every comment.

About the Author Anita Phagura

Anita Phagura is the founder of Fierce Project Management, a passionate advocate for diverse leaders at the heart of projects and beyond. As a project manager for over a decade in railway and construction, often the only woman in the room and only woman of colour, she heard messages of being "too much" or "not enough" - that she needed to change to fit in. Now Anita coaches fierce leaders to embrace their misfit and stand strong in their own shoes whilst they create ripple effects of real change. She aims to build cultures where misfits don't have to fit in, but where they can belong.

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