What does a project manager look like? The way you answer this question might just show up some unconscious biases.
My cousin made a startling revelation the other day—she’s moved from a career in business analysis to project management. I’ll admit I was surprised, though not for the reasons you might think; after all the ‘rivalry’ between business analysts and project managers is almost as contentious as the pseudo-conflict between PR practitioners and journalists.
I was surprised because—and I’m showing significant bias here—she just doesn’t look like a project manager. For starters, she’s female and most project managers I’ve met are male. She’s also relatively young, in her early 30s, and most project managers I’ve met are closer to retirement than they are to the start of their career. And thirdly she (like me) is Asian and in Australia I rarely see Asian project managers, despite our country boasting a multicultural population.
Intellectually, you and I know that what someone looks like has absolutely no bearing on their level of competence. But while I can name you a dozen highly respected, well known project managers who are not older white males, for some reason the ‘default’ picture of a project manager in my head is exactly that.
In addition to reminding me to check my bias, the moment also gave me pause to think about how we might overthrow such stereotypes. Stereotypes exist because they depict a tendency for one trait or another, but they can be dangerous if people use them as a touchstone.
The first step is to get out more. The more people you meet in the course of your work or at networking functions and at conferences, especially outside of your own country, the more you’ll come to recognise project managers come from diverse backgrounds. We are all individuals, after all, so there is no reason for why we should believe someone has certain traits just because our sample size was too small.
The second step is simply to be aware of your prejudices, particularly at crucial moments such as when hiring for your team or selecting someone to represent your project at a forum. Everyone has prejudices. You may not have sexist, ageist and racist tendencies like me (ha!), but you could be ableist or have a bias against people who can’t spell. While poor spellers aren’t an editor’s best friends, they may be brilliant project managers.
When was the last time you had to correct your own unfavourable bias towards someone else?