PMI Bangalore Chapter

PM Guest Article June 2021

Building a pipeline of women project managers : What needs to be done?

Professor Vasanthi Srinivasan

Professor Srinivasan is a Professor in the Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management Area at Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore (IIM-B). She is also the Chairperson of Digital Learning at IIM-B and also the Past President of Indian Academy of Management. Her research interests are in the field of Multi-generations in the Workplace, Women in Management and Boards, Ethics Teaching in Business Schools, HRM in Rapid Growth Organizations and Ethics, and CSR in Micro, Small and Mid-sized enterprises.

While the Indian economy has grown 6 to 7% annually for the last 30 years, women’s participation across all levels in the workforce has declined (Gender Gap Report, 2021). In just the last year, the economic participation and opportunity gap for women saw a decline of 3%, compared to 2020. The data shows that it will take 135.6 years to bridge the gender gap worldwide.  The pandemic has impacted women more severely than men, with increased expectation of care work and work demands both placed on women. In 2021, India slipped 28 places in terms of global gender gap, and is now ranked 140th among 156 nations. In this reality, it is likely to take several decades for equity and equality of women’s participation in the workforce. This ought to be of concern, not just for policy makers, but for professionals of all genders across sectors.

Historically, project management has been a male-dominated profession. With the construction and infrastructure project sectors being geographically remote, organizations employed mostly men in project management roles at the sites. Even in sectors like software services, there are very few women project managers. The GSM IT Scorecard published by Nasscom mentions that women make up over 30% of the technical labour force within the Indian IT companies surveyed. This is a higher number compared to other project-oriented sectors. This is partly because IT industry is a relatively new industry, and has been able to implement initiatives and policies, and foster working cultures that attract and retain women across levels (GSM IT scorecard, 2018). While the absolute percentage of women is higher compared to other sectors, the technical and management leadership pipeline is still weak. The proportion of women in the C-Suite has also been rising but not as steadily as in Senior Management. Nearly 50% of companies reported more than doubling the percentage of women in C-Suite roles between 2012 and 2017. Most companies (over 50%), however, have stagnated, and had the same proportion of women at the most senior level (4%) in 2017 as in 2012.The same is true for women on boards. All in all, even in a very progressive sector, women’s participation at senior levels remains a cause for concern.

In this article I reflect on what more needs to be done in the Indian context to increase and strengthen women’s participation in the workforce. Women’s careers differ significantly from men’s careers, and are often characterised by periods of break and then re-entry into the workplace. Organizations have largely been built around the model of long-term linear careers. “Think manager, think male” has been the dominant model with “organization man” as the imagery of the workplace. Even in sectors where women’s labour participation has been high like garments and electronics, there are very few women supervisors and managers. We must ask some critical questions here: does the potential to become a supervisor or a manager not exist in women workers? Or are organizations systematically ensuring that women are excluded from developmental opportunities that can help them acquire these skills?

What can organizations do to create a workplace more conducive for women?

It is well recognized that workplaces that are more inclusive have two aspects in common: a leadership commitment to inclusion, and policies and practices that enable everyone (not just women). Such organizations have flexible HR policies, liberal maternity leave and clear developmental opportunities in their performance and career systems. Potential assessment systems should be free of unconscious bias and a culture of development, coaching and mentoring needs to be cultivated. All of these practices are key to building an inclusive culture.

The key shapers of inclusion are male managers. The role that enabling male managers play in the lives of women professionals is significant. From calling out sexist remarks to ensuring that sexual harassment complaints are addressed in a timely manner or ensuring that women get credit for their ideas, male managers shape the culture at work team level. Women’s career stories often contain strong role models who identified their high potential, gave them career advancing mission-critical jobs, and provided flexible work schedules so that they could be effective in their roles. In countries like India which are deeply patriarchal, the role of male allies is crucial.

What can women do to ensure continued participation and growth in organizations?

Women need to persist in their careers. Career persistence refers to the likelihood of not dropping out of the workforce. In my conversations with women, I find that when faced with a difficult situation at work or a bad boss, or a stressful care responsibility, women often think of quitting their job and dropping out of the workforce. Women in dual-career households in the Indian context, where spouses are usually older and hold more economically salient positions, are particularly vulnerable.

If women have to stay and succeed in the workforce, they need six enablers: a good professional network, effective influencing skills, business acumen, energy and enthusiasm to lead change, a strong career plan and a mentor. Having a long term career plan is especially important for women. In my work with mid career women managers, I have found that many of them do not have a clear career plan. Many women tell me that no one has asked them about what they want from their careers. We know from research that  career gets shaped, as children and young adults articulate their dreams and aspirations. If women are rarely asked in the early stages of their lives and careers what they want to be, and the external environment has largely made both educational and employment choices for them, how do they acquire the agency to think of a career independently for themselves. Career aspirations, motives, drives and interests are shaped by articulation. Therefore, a career plan is central to women’s personal and professional development since it provides them with goal posts and milestones.

In conclusion, we need women in large numbers in corporations to begin the diversity and inclusion journey. Only if there is significant representation can we talk of participation in decision making in organizations. The pandemic offers an opportunity for the project management profession to commence a new area of inclusion of women. With remote work, project management in some industries can be handled virtually. Virtual work offers opportunity for women to examine careers in project management.  Organizations can invest in hiring competent women who will fill this role. PMI can offer exclusive training for women students enrolled in colleges. When women are exposed to project management at early stages of their careers, they may be able to build this in to their interest. The pipeline of women professionals in project management needs to begin here and they can be then groomed in to project management careers. Showcasing existing women project managers to the young women can make the professional aspiration for them.