Womenomics and Project Management: Diversifying the Workforce

Only 30% of project managers in the tech industry are women. Why is that? And how can we change it?
December 3, 2021
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In 2013, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe used the term Womenomics to present a new approach to Japan’s Economy. The idea was to incentivize women to join the workforce and to have longer careers to stimulate economic growth.

The term Womenomics was coined by Japanese-American Kathy Matsui in a paper published in 1999. According to the author, Japan’s GDP could grow by an estimate of 10% by reducing the workforce gender gap. 

In recent years, the term has evolved and transcended its original usage. In Shipman and Kay’s book Womenomics: Write Your Own Rules for Success, Womenomics is described as a paradigm shift in the economy and business as women gain notoriety and presence as agents of change in the workforce. 

Diagnosing The Issue

It’s no secret that STEM careers have been largely dominated by males. According to the National Girls Collaborative Project in the US, by 2016 women had relatively low shares both in engineering (15%) and computer and mathematical sciences (26%).

According to Harvard Business Review a male-centric culture, the difference in treatment, and prevalent harmful stereotypes about genders discourage young women from exploring STEM-related subjects from an early age. 

Those who do stick to science and math have to cope with a lack of role models, a culture that sees them as outliers, and both positive and negative discrimination. It might not be an actively harmful environment, but it’s certainly not making things easier.

The point is that the lack of women in technology and STEM is a structural issue. There isn’t a single cause that explains why it happens. Rather, we have to see it as an intricate network of historical, social, and psychological variables that permeates modern culture.

There are reasons to be optimistic though. Census data indicates that the woman workforce in the IT field has grown from 8% in the 1970s to 27% in 2019. Having said that, there is a long road ahead of us.

Beyond the Numbers

So, how did Japan fare with its push for Womenomics? Were they successful? The answer is complicated. On one hand, the share of women in their prime working years increased from 73.6% to 77.5%. That’s an impressive 2 million new women in the workforce. So, by raw numbers, it was a huge success.

Yet, in an interview with Forbes, Nobuko Kobayashi, Strategy Execution Leader of EY Asia-Pacific, explains that even if women have joined the workforce, the cultural framework which led to their exclusion is still there, and it’s causing other forms of discrimination

For example, Kobayashi points out that most of the jobs taken by women were “nonregular”, which pay reduced wages and offer precarious job security. She also points out that women are the first ones to be let go. Also, women carry the majority of the unpaid care work burden in Japanese society, which leads to higher levels of stress for them. 

Japan’s scenario paints a complex picture, one that we must carefully consider if we want to develop a more welcoming culture that embraces diversity and gives new opportunities to traditionally marginalized minorities. 

While no one could argue against having more women in the tech industry, targeted hiring will only get us so far. A deep cultural change is occurring, and it needs to keep happening so that we can create systems that support women who wish for a career in the field.

Gender and project management

If the IT industry is male-dominated, then Project Management is doubly so. It’s estimated that only 1 out of 3 project managers in IT is female. Once again, the numbers are growing, albeit slowly.

Beyond having the right skill set to fill the role, women have to assert themselves to gain acceptance and overcome typical stereotypes. If you’ve ever heard someone say “she’s not like other women” or “she’s like one of the guys” that’s the kind of narrative that they have to contend with.

Some of the most common stereotypes are that women are erratic, sentimental, soft, and conflictive, which makes them less reliable in management roles. Not everyone thinks like that, but enough people do, and that’s an issue.

Add to the stereotypes the idea that women who want to have kids will leave their work behind, and it’s not hard to see how biases play a detrimental role in this dynamic. It’s as if women get invited to the poker table like everyone else, but they have to play with four cards instead of five.

Womenomics and Project Management

So, what can women bring to project management? A lot actually…

Studies have found that on average women tend to be more empathetic towards team members, which in turn translates to a healthier work environment. Women also are more critical of projects and tend to have a more open mind concerning alternatives. 

But that’s not all. Women have very different lived experiences, which in turn means a different outlook on life. It’s not about comparing points of view, as it’s impossible to compare something so subjective. 

Instead, it’s about embracing the idea that people from other walks of life can challenge our echo chambers and help us grow as a society, diversity breeds creativity.

Perhaps the biggest reason to foster more female project managers is that there are millions of very talented women out there waiting for an opportunity to show just how good they are.

What can we do?

As we said before, diversity is not about filling quotas, it’s about building culture. Japan’s Womenomics is both an optimistic policy and a warning sign. There is room for more women in the workforce. But they can do more than low-level jobs—they can be managers, owners, CEOs, developers, and yes, project managers.

If you want to create a more diverse workplace, begin by making an assessment of your business. How many women are currently employed? How many are holding management roles? Is there a wage gap in your company?

You might not like the answers. The good news is that once you are aware that you can do better you are already on the right track. Find people who can guide you. People who can help you see the cultural and cognitive changes that are necessary in your environment to create a welcoming place for women.

It might not seem like you are doing much, but most experts agree on the importance of creating role models for new generations. Girls need to see that there is a world out there for them, a place where they belong and where they are as valued as their male counterparts. 

Womenomics is about creating the future.

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