Association for Project Management
Printable version

Unconscious biases may be distorting views on gender equality at the highest level

Although progress around gender equality in leadership roles is being made, most senior managers and directors are still men. Why does this imbalance persist? We spoke with Helen Thomas, Project Delivery Lead at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) about helping more women to break through the glass ceiling in the project profession.

It’s an unfortunate truth that the project profession is behind UK and global averages when it comes to gender equality at the highest level.

Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that the proportion of women in managerial positions in the UK, across all industry sectors, rose from 35.7% in 2012 to 37.9% in 2017[1]. Grant Thornton’s Women in Business 2022 report showed women hold 32% of top leadership positions globally, up from 31% in 2021.

In the project profession, APM partnered with research company Censuswide to survey 1,000 UK-based project and programme professionals in November 2022. Of the respondents in senior managerial or director level roles, 30.8% were women.

Furthermore, the fact there are more men than women in senior positions appears to conflict with the value people in the project profession place on gender equality. The APM/Censuswide survey also found the vast majority (76.9%) of project and programme professionals say their organisation values gender equality ‘highly’ or ‘extremely highly’.

So what are the reasons for the disparity between perception and reality, and what more can be done to promote gender equality at the highest level for those delivering projects, programme and portfolios?

Helen Thomas

Helen Thomas (pictured) has been working in project management for nearly 20 years, delivering high-profile and high-value projects in the private and public sectors. She is currently Project Delivery Lead for the Biosecurity, Borders and Trade Programme at DEFRA.

In Helen’s view, a lot of positive work has been done across all industry sectors to encourage more women into project-related roles. However, she questions whether the positive awareness-building taking place in workplaces may inadvertently be shifting focus away from the reality of gender diversity. A subconscious sense of ‘everything being fine’ may be contributing to the lack of gender diversity in senior level roles by stifling ongoing dialogue.

“At senior level, I feel there is a real commitment to equality and to bring women into the profession. I wonder if that’s causing people to feel that there’s less of a conversation to be had”, she said. “Are we unconsciously thinking ‘there has been some fantastic work done and we [the project profession] are really committed to this, so we no longer need to talk about it and delve deeper’?

“Perhaps we need to change the conversation from ‘how do we get women in?’ to a different focus. We mustn’t ignore the conversation about how to encourage more women into the profession, but there’s more to it than that.”

In Helen’s opinion, retention is just as important as recruitment. But if subconscious misconceptions around equality exist, these may be obstructing retention efforts unintentionally.

“In my professional network, a lot of women are looking to develop their careers but are coming across barriers. There’s the feeling that they can’t go for a promotion or a new role because of their out-of-work commitments, balancing their role as mothers or carers, for example, which disproportionately impacts women.

“I don’t believe any employer would deliberately put barriers in women’s way. I’ve spoken to some brilliant role models; male and female. But I would like to see the conversation move on to whether there are any barriers that may be arising unconsciously. For example, there aren’t as many senior leaders who role model the flexible working patterns and work-life balance needed by women with family and caring commitments.”

One way that ongoing conversations can be driven, in Helen’s view, is by creating environments where women feel confident to share experiences of unconscious gender bias or discrimination they feel they’ve experienced. When asked what kind of biases may be at play, Helen recounted experiences from early in her own career.

She recalled: “There was a point where I took the step up into what I would describe as a ‘true’ project management role. At the time, I had a male manager, who said to me: “You did a good interview actually. I had never thought of you as a project manager”. He was admitting that he had a fixed perception of my abilities from me having been in an administrative role.

“I had been encouraged to go for that role by a senior female colleague. She supported me and pushed me to go for it. Sometimes even great line managers can have an unconscious bias about how they see someone in a role.

“I also think there are unconscious biases that women may hold about each themselves.

“A lot of the time, women will look at a job advert and see it in terms of how the job will fit around their responsibilities and commitments outside work. We should have the confidence to be able to ask questions around that and challenge if a role is too restrictive.”

In addition to ongoing dialogue, Helen would like to see more workplaces adopt a more positive approach to flexible working for people in leadership roles. While the COVID pandemic was the initial catalyst for the mainstream move to working remotely or working flexible hours, many employers have expressed a desire for workers to return to an office-based 9-5 routine. This, coupled with a common workplace perception that leadership roles don’t lend themselves to flexible working, poses a risk to women’s career progression in Helen’s view.

“The push to get people back to the office really highlighted the need for flexible working,” she said. “I’d really like to see more organisations embrace it – not as a challenge to be addressed but as a benefit to be realised.”

When asked if project leaders can do their jobs flexibly, Helen replied: “If you look back 10 or 20 years, people would have said that any project role – even a junior role – could not be done remotely or flexibly. We now know that people can do that very successfully.

“I personally think senior leadership roles can be done by people working flexibly. If people disagree, then we need to be having those conversations; what needs to change about those roles to facilitate more women at this level?”



Channel website:

Original article link:

Share this article

Latest News from
Association for Project Management

APM Conference 2023 - Change Changes: Thursday 8th June, The Vox, Birmingham