Has discrimination made me a better project manager?

hippoMy dad recently sent me this article by David Silverberg on questioning your hippo boss. Once I got over the unfamiliarity with hippo as a business term meaning “highest paid person’s opinion”, I started to ponder the premise of the article. Mr. Silverberg introduced me to a study by the Rotterdam School of Management, which determined that “projects led by junior managers were more likely to be successful than those that had a senior boss in charge, because other employees felt far more able to voice their opinions and give critical feedback.”

Next consider all the studies and social experiments around how differently men are treated than women in professional situations. The most recent one I’ve read is where two colleagues switched signatures for 2 weeks and Martin Schneider learned the hard way about the not so subtle sexism that happens towards women in professional situations.

Let’s also consider the premises by CIO.com and Capterra that women make better project managers. According to the CIO article, “more than 75% of projects $10 million and over fail, overshooting their budgets by 55%, costing the typical Fortune 1000 company an average of $160 million per year.”  Since only 17-30% of large projects are led by women, the majority of those failed projects are led by men. Much of the differences are attributed to the difference in the ways that women assess risk and the confidence trap (the more wrong men are, the more confident their assertions). The Capterra article shares several compelling details about female leaders including “female project managers are almost twice as likely to be on projects costing $1 million or less”, but “women are seen as more  effective (by others) when they held senior-level management positions.”

And finally, let’s consider my my career. I have been the highest paid person on my team and have run several successful technical implementation projects. I often speak up and challenge the status quo to drive others to find better solutions. I have done this with my team (project or direct reports), peers and bosses (direct and several layers up). I have also been challenged many times in my roles as project manager, director or vice president of technical teams and projects.

Should we then conclude that women make better senior executives and project managers as a result of the inherent bias that results in women being treated differently than men?

It’s certainly possible. As a project manager or team lead, I definitely work harder to:

  • foster a collaborative team – I’m very willing to pull additional resources into conversations, as required and force an issue on a call rather than dragging it out over email. If you start building bridges with other groups, departments or resources, you open yourself up to having a wider variety of people to bounce ideas and solicit diverse input.
  • share everything – I’m also a strong believer in documenting everything I can and sharing that with others. I pride myself on doing this, and making it available. It frustrates me that so much of this is not considered important or too proprietary to share even at the team or department level.
  • do my own research – In the same vein, I do a lot of reading and thinking about different topics. Not only does this expand my worldview, it also makes people more willing to engage with me when I need help.

Whether it’s because of or in spite of, I will continue to learn, adapt and delivery on projects.





My Take on the Data & Women DC Inaugural Event

It’s been a while since I wrote about women in tech, but I attended the Data + Women DC Inaugural Event last night, hosted by CHIEF (check out their blog for their monthly events) and was really inspired by what I saw and heard. In some ways the format was like all other meetups, networking followed by a program, but this group did something a little bit different by splitting into smaller groups for more intimate discussions. It was definitely easier to get to know people, and as one person in my group said “maybe all meetups need to treat each event like it’s an inaugural one, and give everyone a smaller forum to be heard.” I tend to agree.

Unfortunately, or given the aforementioned feedback, fortunately, I was coming from another appointment so missed the networking. I caught part of the panel discussion and then all of the small group discussion. We hit on quite a few pieces of advice or considerations that I wanted to share.


One of the most critical points made in response to the question about what you and/or your company can do to help advance women was about bragging. Often we are uncomfortable with other people bragging about our work, especially if it’s unexpected. It’s important to promote the work you do, and if you’re not comfortable doing that, then maybe having your friends and colleagues do it for you, will help make it more comfortable. One participant said she was going to take that recommendation back to her corporate lean in circle.

Emotion & Passion

We definitely touched on not allowing your emotions get in the way of your passion (or lack their of). Several participants shared their experience creating a goal to accomplish X to prove you could, then realizing part of the way that you didn’t want/like this. In the same vane, if something isn’t working for you in your current role or with your current company, it’s within your right to fix it. And if your company isn’t willing it work with you, then it’s time to fulfill that somewhere else.

Confidence & Competence

We had a fairly extensive conversation about women’s confidence & perceived competence. There have been many studies that show men interview for potential (what they believe they can do) and women interview for performance (what they know they can do). While the overall consensus was that we wanted to be true to who were are, and what are capabilities are, but still acknowledge what you can do. Some discussion occurred around how frustrating it is to work with people who say “they can do everything”, but in reality can only do some portion of it. This conversation brought to mind the differences I see in male and female developers. Many male developers I know will say they have experience in language a, b, c and therefore have learned the programming methodologies and frameworks and feel they can do languages d, e and f. Female developers that I know tend to put more weight on what they have done (i.e. language a, b, c). I hope female developers will become comfortable enough to take the same stance as men, extrapolating from their experiences to speculate what they can do.

Inherent Bias in Open Source and Software Language Naming

Our group shared some interesting experiences with the open source apps and software language naming conventions. One participant was recently using an app and came across very male gendered language in the examples and documentation. In pushing the issue on social media, she was able to get some changes made, but no clear alternatives to the problem. Another participant introduced the topic of software languages named for females tend to use very comfortable, personal first names (Ada, Ruby, Julia). That’s rather interesting when you apply the aggressive “wrangling”, “manipulating” verbs towards it.  I can’t say that I had observed either of these first hand. I wonder if I just don’t notice.

I had a great time connecting with my small group. I hope I represented our conversation well. And I hope to see everyone again.

Do we have to “sexify” tech?

Last night I attended the keynote address for Social Media Week DC “smwdc” where Linda Abraham, founder and CMO of comScore; Steve Case, formerly CEO AOL; and Aneesh Chopra, formerly CTO of America and currently candidate for Lt. Governor in Virginia, all spoke.  While everyone had something interesting to say, there were clearly a few different spins taken.After the event, I met up with a friend and her colleague, a technical project manager and a social media/marketing manager, and we had some really interesting conversations about what we had heard.  This post is about what stuck with me, how that differed from them and the subsequent conversation.

One of the first things that Ms. Abraham mentioned is that startups require scrappiness.  This made a lot of sense to me if you look at being scrappy as willing to use all the resources at your disposal and aggressively pursue your goals.  There also might have been a little personal affinity for the word, given that it has been used to describe me (in the context of martial arts training).  Interestingly the initial impression of my colleagues was that it was the wrong word.  The negative connotation was overpowering the message.  

Ms. Abraham spoke about women using technology differently, and really driving social media use and e-commerce.  Men, however, are primarily running these companies or providing the necessary seed capital.  This has led her to the next logical question of women in tech.  Her biggest insight was that women just don’t throw their hat in the ring the way men do.  They tend to focus on their actual skills rather than their potential.  The discussion after the event leaned toward Ms. Abraham having been a more uninspired speaker than Mr. Case or Mr. Chopra.  It was a common opinion that we as a group (my colleagues and me not the entire audience of DC tech meetup) didn’t often think about women in tech, or being a woman in tech. After explaining my involvement with Women in Technology, the DC non-profit professional group with the goal of advancing women in tech from the classroom to the boardroom, it was easier to talk about it.  There was some chat about how most of the women who talk about the issue are on the dowdy side.  Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg were called out specifically as two fresh faces on the forefront of the conversation about women in technology.  It was noted that Yahoo might be a little dowdy in nature, a company not really seen right now as on the cutting edge.

So the question then became “Do we really need to ‘sexify’ tech?”  This was a little bit counter intuitive and I think concerning for the three of us.  There was some concern that we might be falling back into the “binder full of women” type scenario.  This isn’t the first time this has come up.  The European Union released a video in June 2012 called “Science: It’s a girl thing” that highlights women in short skirts and stilletos surrounding by images of lab equipment, formulas, etc.  This was immediately attacked as an affront to women.  It was also immediately parodied by Dartmouth graduate students in one of their science programs.  Three pacific northwest tech women, known as LadyCoders, created a kickstarter project to teach women how to be more successful in technical organizations and roles.  They identified “unconscious biases that marginalize and undervalue the female perspective” as the true issue.  Critics attacked them stating the women were “antifeminist and bowing to a corrupt system rather than working to blow it up. (Seattle Met 012313)”

The one positive is that everyone is talking about this.  With enough people talking, we can generate some critical support and find a disruptive way to increase the pool of technologist, and therefore increase the pool of women in technology.