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Advice for Young Women Entering Project Management

by Donna Fitzgerald  |  August 28, 2011  |  5 Comments


I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal purporting to offer leadership advice to young women at the beginning of their career ( .  The only kind thing I can say about the article is that it serves as a very good example of what not to do.

Let’s go through the points one by one:

1) The article says that If  young women “assert themselves forcefully, people may perceive them as not acting feminine enough, triggering a backlash”.  There is so very much wrong with this statement that I barely know where to start.  Project managers are NOT suppose to be feminine or masculine.  They are suppose to themselves and be able to lead and make decisions.  The classic sexual descriptions should never pertain.  The goal here is to be accepted.  A long time ago in a world far away, I worked with Carol Bartz (the CEO of Yahoo)  I loved watching her work because she was great at being a woman who was one of the boys.  In Jungian parlance, Carol was the quintessential amazon.  She was respected, fun and clearly smart and talented.  I have to admit that I was a bit envious of her but I knew her style would never work for me.  I aimed for being the sister everyone trusted.  And now people have told me that I’ve become the Aunt you trust completely (oh the tyrony of time).  Feminine and masculine are terms that have to do with finding someone to date—not to someone you’ll trust the success of your project with. 

2)The article says “One major problem is a shortage of female role models. People often learn leadership styles by observing others; but there are often few female executives to observe.”  Not sure what planet the author is living on but if you think this is true you are living under a rock.  There are women C.I.O. and women who run PMOs and manage major programs.  I know I’ve been in those positions (though it was C.F.O in my case).  Even when I started there were plenty of women there to help.  Another woman I worked with back in the day was Carlene Ellis ( who later became Intel’s first woman C.I.O.  So if there were women role models when I was starting my career there are even more today.  DO NOT believe that a role model has to be in a C level position to inspire or to be someone to learn from.  The best role models are successful at their jobs and are willing to talk to you.  The higher up the management food-chain someone rises the less time they have to help young women starting out.  Aim just a couple levels above your current position – that’s where you’ll get the best advice.

3)The article says “In theory, these mentors could be either men or women, but young women should realize that male mentors may not be as aware of the unique challenges young women face in asserting leadership.”  I have one answer to this B* S*.  If you believe this for even one second they you will FAIL.  You do not have a unique challenge.  The kind of sex discrimination women faced when I started my career simply doesn’t exist today.  Yes, there are still pockets of it but there WILL ALWAYS BE CHALLENGES.  No one regardless of sex gets a free pass into upper management.  You always have to work for it and earn it. 

4) The article says “It’s also important for young female managers to ask superiors to back them up when others second-guess them.”  Like the rest of the advice this is terrible.  If you have to ask for the support you have already failed.  First off, always be willing to fight your own battles.  If a senior level stakeholder disagrees with you then you need to go to them directly and explain why you made the decision you made and ask why they disagree.  You might have missed a nuance that you could actually accommodate and change a potential adversary into a supporter.  Every once in a while there is a major confrontation.  At this point what should kick in is the normal relationship between a project manager and a sponsor. 

The wonderful thing about being a PM is that it’s absolutely equal opportunity work.  The only thing a young woman or a young man needs to focus on is what its going to take to get the team going in the same direction and to deliver the results the sponsor and the stakeholders want.  Believe it or not if you focus on your job and then stay open to feedback and constantly learn from your successes and your failures – you’ll not only do fine—you’ll do great.

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Category: project-management  

Tags: career-development  

Donna Fitzgerald
Research Vice President
5 years at Gartner
31 years IT industry

Donna Fitzgerald focuses her research on strategies and approaches for using program and portfolio management as a way to create unique business value. Read Full Bio

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  2. Elise Olding says:

    Great comments Donna and relevant. Early in my career (but not early enough!!) I went through an amazing program – Women Leading Change – developed by Rayonna Sharpnak. The training gave me my “voice” and propelled my career. The big take aways were to trust my intuition, learn to communicate my vision and engage others and to “listen generously”. Its a three day course that has the potential to change your life as well as establish relationships with other successful women. To read more about Women’s Leadership see:

  3. […] Advice for Young Women Entering Project Management Tags: advice god, The Wall Street Journal, advice dog, advice quotes, Carol Bartz, Advice […]

  4. Donna,

    I enjoyed reading your response – you’ve offered some sage advice. I am reminded of how much I learned from one of my mentors – who was male, BTW. One of his teachings was to treat everyone as if they were the most important person you would meet that day. It’s a tall order to carry out sometimes, particularly when we are busy or stressed. But I’m sure that every PM who looks for the distinguishing qualities each team member possesses and makes use of them for the good of the team will do just great!

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