On Thursday 29th September, I attended the 2016 APM Women in Project Management Conference at the Victoria Park Plaza Hotel in London. It was a milestone occasion for me – 12 months since I had attended my first such conference in 2015, which sparked my interest in networking and inspirational events. My perspective was slightly different on this occasion however, as I can feel my preference leaning far towards working for myself – either as a freelance writer or starting my own business – rather than continuing on a traditional project management career path. Regardless, I knew the event would be beneficial, if even to remind myself how far I’ve come.
Sara Drake, chief executive of the APM, opened the day with reference to international events giving hope to a future generation of women – including the fact that two women recently competed for leadership of a political party, with the victor becoming the second female Prime Minister of Great Britain! She also referenced the potential for the next POTUS to be a woman (fingers crossed!). She reminded us that it is people who deliver projects, not processes, and informed us that the APM were developing standards to provide clear pathways for career progression – including the Competence Framework.
Joanna Fairley was the opening keynote speaker, sharing her story of setting up Green & Black’s from her kitchen table in Portobello Road – drawing regular comparisons between starting a business and managing a project, in that you need to draw on the expertise of specialists around you, and provide the structure and impetus to keep up momentum. This resonated strongly with me – particularly in my current state of feeling drawn towards start-ups rather than traditional project management. It felt reassuring to see how the skills could transfer relatively easily.
Though Jo shared her good fortune in terms of the timing of her product launch, and the growing awareness of the need for organic, fair trade options to be more widely available, she also shared her strategic advice for success. Her key recommendations were to take time out for self-care, make space to listen to your intuition, and find your own ways to build your personal resilience.
Next up was a panel debate with Gillian Arnold, Sharon de Mascia and Rod Baker. This session combined pre-prepared Q&A with the panellists, with ad-hoc questions from the audience, and interactive impromptu surveys of the crowd.
Some good advice was shared by Gillian around women promoting their own personal brand at work. She recommended we go to our managers regularly with proof of how well we’ve done, in advance of any negotiations for a pay increase. She advocated the need for greater transparency of wages from companies if we are to ever see the gender pay gap closing in our life times.
Sharon highlighted the fact that women often get promoted when men don’t want the job, rather like the recent PM role. She recommended that women promote themselves more in the workplace, and that we should look to the men who have succeeded in order to learn from them. I personally disagree with this – while there may be lessons to learn from successful people, I think that just following in their footsteps will not benefit anyone. The way we work, and the way we define success needs to be modernised, not perpetuated.
Rod recommended that women get as many qualifications as possible before taking any “family breaks”.
There was a question from Sarah Coleman in the audience (Fellow of the APM), around whether women in their 30s are getting fed up of waiting for equality. She said the statistics are showing an increasing number of women leaving the corporate world to go independent/set up their own businesses /start families. This is a clear sign that the system as it stands is not designed to maximise the value of women. Organisations need to do more to value women’s contributions, and to put appropriate measures in place, if they are to retain this talent pool for as long as possible.
Despite the outwardly positive approach toward supporting women in the workplace, a recurring theme through this session seemed to be that women need to act more like men to get ahead at work, but that women shouldn’t get to the top and act like men, which I personally found contradictory and frustrating.
After lunch, there was a choice of sessions available covering Difficult Conversations, Mentoring & Coaching, and Work Life Balance. Having read the bios of the speakers, I chose to attend Deborah Hulme of Minerva Engagement’s session.
In sharing her advice for how to handle difficult negotiations, Deborah focused on the human factors – after all, we are all emotional beings. When in a difficult or stressful situation, our rational, logical brains shrink, and the emotional side takes over. All the more reason then, for us to exercise what she termed ‘cognitive resilience’ to prepare ourselves for such situations and maintain performance levels as high as possible.
Deborah explained that in situations with potential threat or reward, people have a strong tendency to perceive the former rather than the latter. She recommended using the SCARF principle when attempting to enter into negotiations, or difficult conversations to balance the threats against the potential rewards:
- Status – people need to know they’re valued
- Certainty – people don’t like change
- Autonomy – people need to feel independent
- Relatedness – people need to feel understood
- Fairness – people need to feel they’re being treated fairly
Deborah recommended trying to look at situations through another lens, as there is always a different perspective. She also advised us the language we use for others and for ourselves is very powerful. She finished her session with the advice that the answer is not to act more male – just be you!
The next session of the afternoon was on Sponsoring, Mentoring and Coaching with Emma Smythe, who was sharing BAE Systems’ plans for implementing this across the organisation. Her perspective was that managers should see this as part of what they do, rather than being a standalone stream for specialists. She referred to the 70/20/10 learning principle – where we retain 70% of information by doing, 20% through social methods (sponsor, mentor, coaching), and only 10% through formal learning. Bearing that in mind, both individuals and organisations can structure the dissemination of information appropriately.
Peter Cheese, chief executive of CIPD, gave the first keynote of the afternoon, sharing his perspective on the way we work. He spoke about the changing nature of the workplace – technology is affecting the way we work, and the jobs that exist. He advised us the biggest source of absenteeism is stress, which indicates that companies and individuals need to rethink the workforce relationship – including the structure of working hours and locations. He recommended that managers recognise and reward employees as companies have a duty of care to their workers’ well being.
Peter spoke about the practice of flexible working policies being available but not being implemented – by both men and women. He referred to the barriers that exist – including the need to change the mindset of the management, and working to change the bias against part-time workers that is engrained in office culture. He recommended we begin to value performance, tracking output rather than input, in order to change the culture in which we work. He shared the adage: “people join organisations but leave managers”. Peter recommended that shared responsibility be taken between schools and parents to educate children and improve careers guidance.
The closing keynote was given by Harriet Harman, Labour Party MP, who holds the title of the longest continuously-serving female MP in the House of Commons. Harriet began by acknowledging the huge changes in women’s role in workplace over the years. She spoke of the sacrifices her mother’s generation had to make, being asked “what man would want to marry a clever woman?” Even today, she told us that women still do the lion’s share of household work as well as caring for children and elderly family members.
Harriet shared the story of how the Labour Party had boosted the number of female MPs back in 1997, with the election of 101 women to Parliament, by brutally excluding men from even applying. The other political parties had to follow suit as they looked dated in comparison. Companies with white male boards similarly look dated and old-fashioned. She told us that quotas can be beneficial in the right context, and encouraged us to think about the outcome we want to achieve and then do what you need to do to get there.
Harriet encouraged us to look at the gender pay gap, with transparency of pay being crucial in order to effect change. Under the Equality Act 2010, companies are obliged to share data on how their employees are paid. She recommended that rather than trying to compare all data, that one figure should be chosen as a measure for comparison: the gap between the average hourly pay of male employees as compared to female employees, including both the full time and part time members of staff. She suggested this would give an accurate indication of how men and women are treated by the organisation, and give them something measurable to work with and improve the situation.
As part of this overall assessment of workplaces, Harriet recommended we start the conversation about why part timers don’t get promoted, and look at why don’t men take parental leave, even when it is available. She suggested that organisations could, and should, publish statistics relating to these members of the workforce.
She encouraged us to be bold, and push the boundaries, stating that “today’s unreasonable demands are tomorrow’s wisdom”. Recalling the history of the women’s movement, and the advances their actions achieved, Harriet encouraged us to break new ground ourselves. She told us to encourage and support women in the way that she does, as she doesn’t want young MPs to make the same mistakes she did in finding her way through Parliament. Harriet encouraged us to be role models – to do better than the women before us – and to do it in our own way, in the modern quest for equality.