Improving gender balance in the leadership of major projects through 'whole systems' change

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Development Planning Unit


In spite of decades of effort to improve the representation (and experiences) of women in management and leadership, and so allow them to play their skilled part in transforming practices, there is continuing, persistent, structural gender inequality in organisations. Progress, it is now internationally recognised, has stalled, identified as a critical risk to economic and social futures by groups as diverse as the World Economic Forum and the International Labour Organisation. Why does the relationship between the growth of project management and stalled progress on gender equality deserve scrutiny? Women are even more under-represented in the leadership teams of major projects. In spite of the growth of new inquiries into project management, and the growth of critical perspectives, there has not been a concerted effort to apply this epistemological perspective to the question of women and gender in project leadership.

There have been many attempts at explaining the absence of women in the management and leadership of major projects, so called educational, pipeline, cultural, work-life, readiness, experience and women are just different explanations have been used. The history and development of the profession gives us some insight into why there are so few women in project management. Typically, project managers are drawn from the STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) professions, on the basis that projects in the past were largely located in construction, infrastructure, technology, defence, engineering; the expectation is that people (therefore largely men) are promoted from within that field. How helpful - or indeed how accurate - are these 'explanations' for the absence of women in senior leadership? There is a critical need to improve gender balance in the leadership of major projects through 'whole systems' change. The ambition is to have significant and widespread influences and to help in the transformation of business practices and to explore the skills needed by employers.

The objectives for this research are:
1. To analyse and evaluate the current theoretical frameworks which are intended to explain the gender imbalance in major projects leadership
2. To evaluate the effectiveness of current organisational strategies and practices employed to improve gender balance
3. To consolidate a 'learning community' through a longitudinal, participative action research consortium with major project enterprise partners.
4. To track and monitor progress of organisational strategies, contributing research insights in order to adapt strategies over time
5. To identify & share the most effective strategies and practices for improving gender balance in organisations, projects enterprises and the 'whole system'.

This PhD studentship will specifically make a fresh contribution to theories and strategies to improve gender balance in projects leadership. There will be collaboration with international groups of researchers in women and leadership and the continuing growth of a community of research-and-practice on gender in project management. For industrialists, a community of practice for major project organisations will be created to allow them to make deliberative and systematic progress on this currently intractable issue. Recommendations will be made to government for policy development, where appropriate on improving gender balance in major infrastructure planning and project management. There will also be support for existing and new networks to think afresh about strategies for change that work.


10 25 50

Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/R500951/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2021
1993125 Studentship ES/R500951/1 08/01/2018 14/03/2023 Emily Miles
ES/P000592/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2027
1993125 Studentship ES/P000592/1 08/01/2018 14/03/2023 Emily Miles
Description Strategic Advisory Group 
Organisation Funding Authority for Studies and Projects
Country Brazil 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution I have convened a group of senior women and men who work in different organisations and professions connected to the delivery of major projects. The group makes suggestions for the focus of my research, helps form a practitioner response to any findings, and acts as gatekeepers to potential research participants and beneficiaries. Because this is an Action Research PhD, this collaboration with industry has been invaluable in encouraging practitioner engagement. These organisations include: KPMG, HS2, The Infrastructure and Projects Authority, Network Rail, TFL, Ministry of Justice, Land Registry, HS2 Ltd, Copper Consultancy, The Nichols Group, Sir Edward McAlpine, MottMacdonald, Crossrail, the Environment Agency, Department for Transport, the RSA, Women in Rail, the Association of Project Managers and the Major Projects Association.
Collaborator Contribution This group meets annually to inform and comment on each stage of this research project (inquiry, planning, action, evaluation and implementation). In addition, I met with each member on a 1:1 basis to understand their experiences and perspective on gender equality, what it is like to lead in major projects, and what kinds of issues my research project could focus on.
Impact The annual meetings have been minuted, and the suggestions of the group have informed both the scope of the research and the case study (a major transport infrastructure project). This group is multi-disciplinary, consisting of project managers, engineers, professional services (consultancy), communications experts, academics, civil servants, chief executives, and HR/Equality and Diversity professionals. This group of disciplines has been convened as they typically represent the professions that coexist with major project delivery. As a result of engaging in this research project, this group of industry professionals have also demonstrated that their support for improving the experiences of women in this industry, and many have gone on to work on other similar initiatives as a result.
Start Year 2018