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7 Most Important Leadership Behaviors for Female Project Managers

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While I was researching my book, Customer-Centric Project Management, I came across a piece of research in the Project Management Journal about women’s leadership skills.

‘Project Management Leadership Behaviors and Frequency of Use by Female Project Managers’ by Charlotte Neuhauser, PMP, looks at what women think are the most important leadership characteristics and then whether or not they use them.

In this article, I’ll summarize that research and look at the top leadership skills for female project managers — and interestingly, men can take something away from this research too.

Most important leadership behaviors for project managers

Leadership has a huge effect on projects. It’s often cited in studies as one of the top contributing factors to project success, and it’s easy to see why. Think of a leader you loved following, even when that meant long hours or tough decisions.

The 7 important behavior types for project managers are (from most important to least important):

  1. Influence
  2. Inspirational motivation
  3. Intellectual stimulation
  4. Managerial skills
  5. Individualized consideration (treating project team members as individuals, not ‘resources’)
  6. Attributed charisma
  7. Contingent reward (i.e. clarifying goals and benefits for project team members)

These apply to both male and female project managers. Leadership skills can be practiced (here are 3 ways to practice your leadership skills) so if you don’t immediately identify your own experience with what is on the list don’t worry — you can learn and improve.

The study found that the more important women felt the behavior was, the less frequently they said they displayed it.

Looking at the mean response scores, no behavior was used ‘Almost Always’. Either the women in the study really aren’t that good at project management or they were judging themselves very harshly.

How female project managers lead

5 Most used behaviors by female project managers

The study broke down these behavior types and assessed the most and least used actions by female project managers. The 5 most commonly seen behaviors were:

  1. Recommends promotions for exceptional performance
  2. Recommends pay increases or bonuses for exceptional performance
  3. Delegates authority for decisions to team members
  4. Gets ideas accepted by superiors
  5. People are proud to be associated with them.

To my recollection, the study did not call out anything specifically to do with virtual leadership skills. I do think leading a virtual team is slightly different to leading an in-person team, although many of the core skills and behaviors are going to be the same.

5 Least used behaviors by female project managers

The 5 things women did most infrequently were:

  1. Earns respect of others through demonstrating competence by personal task performance
  2. Inspires others by setting an example of courage, dedication and self-sacrifice
  3. Uses time efficiently
  4. Negotiates with colleagues, suppliers and clients (note that this is just about any negotiating, not negotiating effectively)
  5. Offers encouragement, advice and assistance when team members need help.

Seriously, who are these women answering the research questions? They are happy to delegate, but not to offer help to their team. Their supervisors say their ideas are great, but they don’t negotiate. People are happy to work with them but they are disorganized time wasters who don’t complete their own tasks competently.

Was there ever a better argument for knowing your own strengths and weaknesses and being honest about your capabilities? This is Imposter Syndrome in action.

Elizabeth on the phone

The researcher draws some parallels to other studies but does not comment on the disparities in the results. They are, after all, perceptions. I can perceive that I, or other women, are no good at driving, but it doesn’t make it factually true. (Actually, in my case, it does.)

After reading the research, I strongly believe that the 61 women surveyed were judging themselves too harshly. A whopping 75% of them agreed that women think women are weaker project managers than men! If we don’t believe in ourselves, who will?

Neuhauser’s research also asked female project managers to report on how they thought they were perceived by men. Here’s what her study had to say.

Women say: Men don’t think women are weaker project managers

I’m glad we believe men have the sense to think that women are adequate as project managers, as we don’t apparently believe that about ourselves.

As you saw in the research results earlier in this article, 75% of women surveyed believed that women think women are weaker project managers than men. How can we believe we are worse than men but at the same time think men see us as equals?

I don’t get it, and I’m sure it’s not a compliment to male intelligence. It could either be interpreted as men not being able to recognize our faults, or as women being too harsh on each other. Or both.

person presenting something at whiteboard

Women say: Men don’t take women seriously

59% of survey respondents believed that female project managers are not taken seriously by men. I don’t think that this is a statistic limited to the project management community. I expect it applies to professional women in a range of careers.

However, the figure was much lower than I was expecting, which is great. I would have liked to see the breakdown of results by age, as I have a feeling that the younger you are, more you are going to struggle with getting taken seriously at work.

Women say: Women are less committed than men

The question asked here was a long one. Female project managers “have less organizational commitment and professional capability than their male counterparts”. This had the strongest, clearest response from the women surveyed, with a massive 95% of them agreeing or strongly agreeing with this.

There’s no rationale given for this in the research, so here are some reasons why I think women believe this about themselves:

  • We are more committed to our families than our employers
  • We see men working while other women take parental leave for family emergencies
  • We don’t define ourselves by our jobs, so this translates to “not being committedâ€
  • We don’t see women being promoted as often as men, which leads to “having less professional capabilityâ€
  • Perhaps men don’t beat themselves up about them so much with parental guilt about the balance between work and family, even if they feel it just as keenly as women do.
elizabeth at desk

But in reality, who knows why the women surveyed thought that men were more committed and professionally better than they were? Maybe they had all gone out for team manicures while the men stayed in the office and slaved away. Maybe the women surveyed genuinely were pretty rubbish at their jobs, working in teams with high-performing male colleagues.

PMJ research
61 women were asked to respond to these questions: this is what they said

Neuhauser says:

The sample of this study had a stronger belief that they are weaker project managers than they believe men perceive them to be. Comparing that response with the perception of this group that women have less commitment and professional capability than men seems to point out a reinforcement with their self-perception of less competence… It is perplexing why female project managers view other female project managers as weaker than their male counterparts and yet do not perceive males viewing females as weaker.

In short, I would conclude, the research study didn’t turn up anything useful or conclusive and further research should be done to find out if there really is anything to this.

What do you think – is it worth doing more research into this subject or not?

Read next: Best leadership books for project managers.

Read the research: Neuhauser, C. 2007. Project Management Leadership Behaviors and Frequency of Use by Female Project Managers in Project Management Journal, 38(1), pp21-31.

These are the 7 leadership skills for #projectmanagement

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin is a Fellow of the Association for Project Management in the UK and the award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.

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