How to Leverage Gender & Diversity in Project Management

Is Diversity naturally embedded in Project Management or does this new and hugely complex profession needs to reconsider the way it is looking at differences? A keynote at the (Gender) Diversity in Project Management Congress in the Netherlands set the scene.

“We are already successful and therefore do not need (more) diversity!” “We rely on a strong team spirit, performance focus and effective, standardised processes!” “THEY have to make choices and then they can do it!” According to the European D&I Guru, Michael Stuber, these are common initial reactions to Diversity. However, differences have always been at the core of most business models, including in R&D, marketing, sales, advertisement, innovation, and – quite strongly – Project Management. In these and other areas, differences are a source or guiding idea for success. Therefore, a renewed D&I conversation has to acknowledge personal stories and political dimensions but should clearly focus on strategic, tactical and operational paradigms that D&I can cover in a business context.

At the heart of the business: The D&I value-chain

In a business context, it is critical to understand how D&I works as a value-creation process. For most people know that differences may lead to benefits, while they also know that they can lead to conflict. Research confirms that an open-minded corporate culture is the pre-requisite to be able to access the potential value of differences. However, it is not enough. Inclusive processes, structures and behaviours are needed in addition to actually lead to the desired positive effects. Stuber calls this value chain the Propelling Performance Principle to describe the systematic nature of how to add value from differences.

Return on investment: evidence about the Business Case

The intuitive understanding or random survey about the potential value of diversity is not enough in a business environment. Robust evidence is required. A bi-annual global research project evaluated studies with regard to their reliability and validity, and included those that met the criteria in report. This IBCR grew, over ten years, from 62 to 205 studies. They prove how decision quality and hence problem solving is improved through diversity, how a productive conflict in diverse teams is the key to better performance and how diversity in personal demographics, including ethnicity and gender, are driving many of these value-adding processes.

Biases: Human and organisational barriers to leveraging Diversity

Despite the strong rationale for D&I, many issues keep on hindering organisations to tap into the full potential of differences. A large body of research has identified different types of (mostly unconscious) biases that result in individual, inter-personal or organisational barriers. Similarity biases (in-group preferences) and othering (associating difference with deficit) are two types of biases that are human – and contributed to the survival of the human race. However, today, they lead to unwanted effects that are not aligned with our intention to, e.g., create diverse teams. Inter-personal biases often show up in seemingly objective, meritocratic or neutral processes that are implemented by humans. In organisations, unwritten rules or a risk-adverse preference for historic success-models create invisible barriers for non-mainstream talent that often lead to disproportional attrition of women or minorities.

Complex dynamics require complex responses

The complex nature and inter-relation of the various types of unconscious biases make it quite obvious that singular programmes or initiatives, even if they are sponsored by C-level executives, will not create the change required to bring about the desired benefits (and move the needle of representation at the same time). Instead, a carefully orchestrated combination of leadership, programmes and process adjustments, as well as a strong focus on corporate cultural aspects is needed.

For gender diversity in particular, traditional women’s programmes have not resulted in growing either numbers or acceptance. Therefore, the experienced expert, Michael Stuber, has issued – on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2017, a list of 7 items to improve Gender Diversity. These were found to be particularly relevant in Project Management, were women are underrepresented in many of the key areas and also disadvantaged in some respects (e.g. pay). However, many existing Diversity programmes in Project Management include some of the features that should be reconsidered:

1)       Get the tone from the Top but the action from Middle Management

2)       Put business targets first and make your gender numbers indicators

3)       Before focusing on recruiting women, identify and close your leaks

4)       Stop (most) women-only initiatives and apply a diversity mind-set

5)       Eliminate social, ethical and deficit/support language

6)       Identify role models based on their behaviour and skills

7)       Deploy a mix of high profile and embedded strategies

A more detailed description can be found here.

In addition, he points to the many operational ways how leaders can – and must – embed D&I in their leadership behaviour and routines.

More detail is provided in this article.

In a dedicated workshop, Stuber worked with project management experts from various countries and continents. They co-created an inventory of successes and challenges from which the group derived observations that led to ideas for comprehensive ways how to apply D&I in Project Management.