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PMO Advisory: Featured Article

Empowering Women in Project Management

Prof. Dr. Te Wu (PfMP, PgMP, PMP, PMI-RFP) / March 2018


Women have made steady gains in project management on many fronts including participation and compensation. On compensation, the gap between men and women has steadily decreased from 24% in 1996 to 18% in 2000; in the latest Project Management Institute (PMI) global salary survey in late 2017, the gap is now 14%. However, more must be done to attract women to the project management profession.  Women also confront significant challenges, especially in certain cultures. This article explores these with suggestions to empower women in project management.

I. Introduction

Project management is becoming an ever more important arena to contemporary organizations because projects are becoming the chief vehicle to transform ideas into reality and project management embodies the knowledge, skills, processes and wisdom of implementing projects efficiently and effectively. However, the current state of project management is dismal across many industries.  According to Project Management Institute’s 2018 study of project performance, organizations waste about 9.9% of every dollar spent on projects (Project Management Institute, 2017). This means for a $1 billion dollar project, $99 million are wasted. Practitioners and academics alike are constantly seeking better and more effective ways to implement projects.

As a profession, project management has been a male-dominated field, especially at the onset. With each advancement in theories, such as critical chain and tools such as earned value, there have been small improvements. However, for the past twenty years, the improvement has largely subsided.  What’s countering improvement is that contemporary projects are often larger, more complex, facing greater constraints, involving more stakeholders, to name a few. In short, projects are increasingly more challenging. One important arena that is still new and with precious little research is the role of women in project management.  This article argues that to enable the next leap in project success, the time has come to empower more women to play a strong role in project management. Getting more women involved on equal terms with men is not only the right thing to do for our society, but it is also the best thing that organizations and nations can do to leverage all of its resources and intelligence. This article examines the issue of women in project management in these four sections:

  1. Participation of women in project management – Examine the response rate to a large scale salary survey

  2. Compensation gap – Analyze the compensation differences between men and women in each of the respective countries surveyed

  3. Women power – Discuss areas in which women excel

  4. Empowering women – Explore ways to unshackle women in our world

II. Participation

When project management was first founded in the 1950’s, the field was largely occupied by men. Sadly, while there have been significant improvements, the field today continues to be male-dominant in much of the world. Specific and verifiable figures are difficult to gather as there is no definitive source of data. However, there are suitable substitutions that can paint a fairly robust trend that women’s participation is increasing. This article examines the latest salary survey by the Project Management Institute (PMI) in 2017 and uses the proxy of female response rate to the survey as participation rate. In the 2017 PMI Salary Survey, there are 33,000 respondents from 37 countries, the female respondents to the survey have a global average of 21%. The nation with the highest female respondents, which is 39%, is the United States. This is followed by Canada at 34%.  Yet, in male-dominated cultures such as Saudi Arabia, the female respondent rate was 1%. In South Korea, it was a dismal 5%.

Examining the data more closely, it is evident that women’s participation is a complex issue. Two examples to illustrate this observation. 1) Using Hofstede's Masculinity Index, the intuitive rationale would be that in cultures that are more masculine, the response rate for women would decline. However, empirical data shows that this is clearly not the case. Switzerland has a masculinity index of 70, which is quite high. The female response rate is 17%. On the other hand, South Korea has a masculinity index of 39, and yet, the female response rate is only 5%.  2) This article also examined the association between female response rate with the World Bank’s data on the female labor participation rate. The result is a very weak correlation.

II. Compensation Gap

The data on compensation for women project managers is stronger, as the principal purpose of the PMI salary survey focuses on compensation. According to the survey, in 2017, the global compensation average for men was 13.8% higher than women.  But before becoming despaired at the data, there is some good news. According to PMI’s salary survey in 2000, the global gap then was 18% -- or more than 4% higher. Better yet, the gap in 1996 stood at 24% (Project Management Institute, 2000). Clearly, there have been significant improvements, especially when comparing the 2017 data with 1996; it is an improvement of nearly 10%.  

The mean compensation gap varies greatly across the surveyed countries, of which there are data for 36 countries.  Only Saudi Arabia did not provide sufficient data. Examining the data at the country level, it is worthy to note that there are significant variations across the nations, with Ecuador standing at a high of a 34% gap with Switzerland and Sweden at or near parity.  For the United States, the gap is 10%, on the lower side of the globla discrepencies.

III. Women Power

Gender studies have demonstrated women often possess different natural talents and tendencies and that many of them can be proven to be very effective in performing certain managerial roles.  These talents can allow women to excel in their careers as manager as well as differentiate them from their male counterparts. Scientifically, there is very little concrete study to support women’s superiority (or inferiority).  However, based more on empirical observations and anecdotal evidence, there are four key areas in which women often outshine men, and these include communication, creating a nurturing environment, motivating people, and multi-tasking.

Communication is one of the most widely practiced activities among project managers. In fact, project managers spend about 90% on communication as they manage projects (Rajkumar, 2010). According to Kaur (2009), women can be exceptional communicators. This quality can be a vital asset to projects.  As women tend to be more communicative, the conversations instigate further dialog even when the conversations are impromptu. Furthermore, informal and regular conversations with the stakeholders create a nourishing environment that allows others to express their concerns and problems more effectively. Hence, though more proactive communication sometimes with less reservation holding back ideas, teams can explore new ideas with less hesitancy and solve problems quicker.  

On creating a more nourishing environment, in addition to being more communicative, women project managers often combine meticulous planning with empathy to create an enriching environment in which the entire project team can flourish.  Related to nurturing is the ability to motivate their teams. In combination with strong communication skills, women project managers are more apt at examining the whole issue on a more individual basis, often taking a personal interest in the issues that their team member face. Consequently, women project managers can successfully build loyal and highly motivated teams. Furthermore, women are often viewed as the better manager of conflicts by defusing tense situations before they erupt. This creates a more inviting team atmosphere that encourages team members to work more effectively.  

To add more fuel to the women power, a recent experiment conducted by Professor Keith Laws, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, empirically showed that women are better at multi-tasking then men (Gray, 2010). In a simple experiment given to 50 men and 50 women, they are asked to complete three tasks. However, as they were completing the tasks, they were disrupted by phone calls. Overall, women completed the tasks much more effectively than men. Since projects are composed of many tasks, this ability to better multitasking gives women a better ability to manage work activities, navigate multi-level risks, and tackle challenges. Furthermore, women are less fazed by changes such as requirements, priorities, people, and schedules.

IV. Empowering Women

As clearly shown in this article, women still have a significant gap to close, both in participation and in compensation. However, the value of women in general and project management in specific is well understood.  In the last section of this article, the focus turns to these three questions: 1) What are the challenges that women project managers often face? 2) How can organizations and societies overcome these challenges and encourage more women to participate in project management? Moreover, 3) How to empower women?

A. Workplace Challenges

Women in the workplace have faced and are still facing challenges as they climb the career ladder, especially in male-dominated fields such as project management. Most recently, the “Me Too” movements have shown that sexual harassment in the workplace is real.  In the United States, as this article is being written, a shocking survey by US Today revealed that 94% of the women questioned had experienced some form of sexual assault or harassment in their career in Hollywood. If it is unclear how these statistics are directly related to women in project management, the inference is clear.  Women who have to confront a hostile work environment would likely experience issues of confidence, self-esteem, their ability to concentrate, and ultimately their performance. A less demeaning, but likely to be more prevalent is male chauvinism. This is the belief that men are superior to women, and this sometimes unconscious bias affects both men and women on how they lead projects.  

A woman’s career is often hampered by childbearing. Worse, cultural norms in most societies require women to spend more time managing family life such as child rearing, household chores, managing elder parents, and other domestic activities. Collectively, these can have a significant impact on a woman’s ability to manage her career.  Worse, even when the male counterparts are not applying pressure, the women themselves often accept more family responsibilities as a part of their identity. This creates the next challenge for women – ambivalence in their career choices. In a large study in Australia, many women expressed reticence and ambivalence about their career advancements and their prospects of promotion, in particular reconciling family responsibilities with the workload of senior positions (Ross-Smith & Chesterman, 2009).

There are many other challenges, including the “old boy network” of which women are the outsiders (Linehan, 2001). There is also the ageism, in which older women professionals face a more difficult time finding meaningful work (Granleese & Sayer, 2006; Still & Timms, 1998) and “lookism” in which especially females are often selected for their look and not their education, work history, and professional capabilities (Still & Timms, 1998).  A particular challenge for project managers that is that women sometimes lack the required technical background such as engineering.

B. Overcoming Challenges

Simply put, there is much societies and organizations can do to create a more equitable field for women professionals.  The government can pass anti-harassment legislation to outlaw workplace discrimination or introduce compulsory quotas, for example, requiring publically traded companies to give women at least 40% of their board seats (as this is being considered in Norway currently). At an industry level, watchdogs and fund managers can insist that organizations treat all employees fairly regardless of gender.  Executives in organizations can serve as role models in how they treat all employees and promote people based on merit. Perhaps most visibly, the compensation gap can narrow further for employees with similar levels and responsibilities regardless of their gender. Schools and educators can encourage more women to consider Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) programs so our society can have more engineers, scientists, and mathematicians. However, beyond society, industry, and organization, women also have a vital duty to push against the inequities and make a case for fairness and equality.

Overcoming these challenges, whether it is the inhibition to stand out or reticence to lead, will not be simple or quick.  As the salary data shows, in the past ten years, the compensation gap between men and women has narrowed from 24% to 14%, but 14% is still significant and unfair.  It is important to remember that everyone at every level has a role to play - to create a world that’s fair for all people.

C. Empowering Women in Project Management

Up to this point, I have written the article in the third person.  However, in this last section, I will dare to use the first person voice.  Even though I am a male, which I realize diminishes my credibility of writing this article on women in project management, I also believe that I should not be biased just because I am a man. I choose to write this section in the first person because as a project executive, I have fought for equal treatment of women in the workplace. As an executive trainer, I have witnessed the gradual rise of women, especially at the top of the project management career path – portfolio management. As a teacher, some of my best and favorite students are young women who are ready to make their mark.  Perhaps most importantly and personally, as a father who has two beautiful daughters, I want them to have the liberty of pursuing their dreams uninhibited by biases.

Here is what empowering women in project management means to me – give women the opportunity to lead, to explore new ways of implementing projects, to experiment with fresh approaches that break through the traditional barriers, and also to let them be themselves and without the concern of how the male-dominated world has managed projects to date. To move the needle of project success from the doldrums of the high 20% to low 30% to something significantly more, organizations need to unshackle the traditional approaches to project management and encourage women and men to create new ways to implement projects.  

Examining the latest PMI salary survey tells the real story  -- of the 32,088 usable salary data, 8723 or 27% of the inputs are from women project managers.  The march toward greater equality is occurring, and changes are happening fast. I hope that this article encourages all women to consider project management as a viable career. The road ahead may not be easy, but it is certain to be exciting.

A fuller version of this article will be published by Project Management Review, the sole project management publication in China.  Prof. Dr. Te Wu, CEO of PMO Advisory, is currently examining project management compensation data over the past 18 years. For those who are interested in project management compensation, both male and female, please sign-up here.  We will inform you as we complete further analyses.


Granleese, J., & Sayer, G. (2006). Gendered ageism and “lookism”: a triple jeopardy for female academics. Women in Management Review, 21(6), 500–517. https://doi.org/10.1108/09649420610683480

Gray, R. (2010). Scientists prove that women are better at multitasking than men. The Telegraph.

Kaur, G. (2009). Women in IT Security Project Management. SANS Institue InfoSec Reading Room.

Linehan, M. (2001). Networking for female managers’ career development Empirical evidence. Journal of Management Development, 20(10), 823–829. https://doi.org/10.1108/EUM0000000006237

Project Management Institute, I. (2000). PMI Project Management Salary Survey 2000 Edition.

Project Management Institute (PMI). (2017). Success Rates Rise-Transforming the high cost of low performance. Pulse of the Profession. Retrieved from http://www.pmi.org/-/media/pmi/documents/public/pdf/learning/thought-leadership/pulse/pulse-of-the-profession-2017.pdf

Rajkumar, S. (2010). Art of Communication in Project Management. Project Management Journal, 1–28.

Ross-Smith, A., & Chesterman, C. (2009). Reticence and Ambivalence Towards. Journal of Management and Organization, 15(5), 582–595.

Still, L., & Timms, W. (1998). Career barriers and the older woman manager. Women in Management Review, 13(4), 143–155. https://doi.org/10.1108/09649429810219754

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