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What women bring to product management

An article in collaboration with Vivian Lo

Equal Pay Day in the United States was on March 31st. This year, it has slipped under the radar, understandably superseded by the COVID-19 pandemic. While we work collectively to keep transmission low by staying indoors, we didn’t want to let the time pass without taking a moment to acknowledge this important day.

Gender diversity in product should be a given, rather than a goal. Fortunately, there are organizations like Women in Product and AWIP (Advancing Women in Product) that provide support and opportunity to women who work or aspire to work as product professionals. There are also many fierce and powerful product leaders that are forging the way for younger generations. We were fortunate to catch up with a few of those women, where we asked them about their pivotal career moments, their breakthroughs, and their advice to rising product managers. Hear from Janette Chung, Yasi Baiani, Alice Chen, and Jennifer Grasso, below.

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Who is who

What were some of the challenges you faced or pivotal moments that shaped your career as a PM?

Product management continues to be a highly male-dominated field. Without representation, some new PMs find it challenging to visualize themselves as leaders. While many PMs begin their careers focused on heads-down tasks, like writing product requirements documents (PRDs), they soon realize that their greatest impact will come from the way they work with cross functional teams. While different for everyone, all PMs have at least one pivotal moment that has altered their career path or changed their perception of the workplace forever.

“As I progressed in my career, I began to prioritize relationships more, spending more time trying to understand the values and concerns of other cross functional teams,” says Chung. “I learned that there is so much value in working together to achieve something mutually beneficial,” she adds.

“A typical mistake that many PMs make early on in their career is the false perception that as a leader, you have to solve every problem by yourself. I think that collaborating with cross functional stakeholders is so important as a PM. If you start trying to solve everything yourself, you’ll find that your team will start to look at you as a mini dictator, instead of a team player,” says Grasso.

Companies with an all-female founders team receive just over 2% of venture capital dollars. Many VCs are male, attempting to reproduce a pattern of success (see: pattern matching). Leadership teams also have to overcome the challenge of getting investors to understand the market appeal of female-focused products.

“As a female leader, you start feeling lonely when you’ve gotten to the executive positions; think about presenting in board meetings, where you’re one of a handful of women, and in many cases the only woman,” says Baiani. “Female founders often face the challenge that the VCs can’t relate to the problems these founders are aiming to solve (fertility, childcare, fashion, etc.)” she adds.

How is the experience of a PM unique for female PMs?

In a function that is nearly 70% male, the female experience is certainly unique. Women in general are shown to have high emotional intelligence balance by humility, which make them well equipped to communicate effectively with C-suite executives and be persuasive and effective leaders.

Women in product may also experience imposter syndrome, especially since product doesn’t have a clear and defined path; It’s validating to have a finance degree as a finance leader, or an engineering degree as an engineer, but product leaders typically come from a vast variety of backgrounds.

It’s important to find a network of other female leaders where ideas and feedback can be easily exchanged. Incorporating training on inclusion and biases in the workplace is a positive step in the right direction, but what are some ways that women can really break through and thrive?

 “I’ve definitely encountered both imposter syndrome and attribution bias. In the past, I wondered if I should “switch to a more challenging team” or if I “was ready” for my role. I observed that if a project failed that was led by a man, he was less likely to blame himself for that failure. In contrast, if failed projects were led by a woman, there was an increased tendency for her to blame herself for that failure,” shares Chung.

“A successful PM needs to be confident, knowledgeable, and seen as a leader in your organization. This can be a challenge for anyone (regardless of gender), but I do think that women have to overcompensate to exude these qualities,” says Chen.

“As women, we tend to apologize more, and have more negative self- talk, failing to value or doubting our own contributions. I’ve felt that way over the years, and there’s certainly never been a pivotal point where I think “NOW, I’m perfectly confident at everything I do, and I will no longer question myself,” says Grasso. “But I don’t think that constantly doubting or questioning ourselves is productive,” she adds.

Do you have any advice for current or rising PMs?

While many female product managers come from technical backgrounds (like engineering), it’s often the less-technical skills, like emotional intelligence, creativity, and persistence) that propel a PM’s career forward. We asked the female leaders we spoke to what advice they’d offer their younger selves:

 “Be intentional about how you prioritize problems from a business perspective. Working mostly alongside male engineers, I gained respect from my male counterparts by aligning cross-functional teams well and proactively working with the engineering team to solve those problems,” says Chung.

“Don’t be afraid to make the wrong decision. Just remember that you were hired because you have great decision making skills. As long as you break down the problem and weigh the options, your decision is as good as anyone else’s,” advises Chen.

“Everything has its nuances, and not everything is “black and white”. My advice is to unlearn that everything always has a “right” or “wrong” answer,” says Chung.

Research shows that men typically raise their hands for roles they may be underqualified for, confident in their ability to learn on the job. Women, on the other hand, are more hesitant to apply for roles unless they’ve fulfilled every job requirement.

“Raise your hand and take those PM roles! Don’t fear that you might not have all the skills and credentials required. None of your male counterparts met absolutely all of the requirements when they raised their hands for those jobs,” says Bailani.

“This isn’t exclusive to PMs, but my advice to women is to negotiate. When you’re switching jobs, do not forget that you need to negotiate. If you aren’t asking for more money, then you’re probably leaving money on the table. More times than not, a male in that role will negotiate for more. Know your worth and that you’re desirable in the marketplace,” says Grasso.

How do you expect the PM landscape to change for female PMs in the future?

Great product leaders have significant stamina. To see a product through from idea to go-to-market requires a great amount of patience and persistence. As more and more companies begin to implement inclusion and diversity goals, the prospect of more women in product (and in tech in general) is looking up. To close the gender gap, we must encourage young women to pursue education in tech and recognize that roles in product are just as well suited for women as men.

“My hope is to see many more women in product management. We know that women are currently driving 70-80% of the customer purchasing decisions. Women have the ability to build products and experiences that serve the majority of decision makers, because women understand the customer (other women) better than our male counterparts” says Baiani.

“I’m excited to see that California is now enforcing having more female board leaders starting in 2020. These major changes starting at the top will facilitate discussions to help level the playing field for female product leaders,” she adds.

“I strongly believe strongly in diversity, whether that’s gender diversity or ethnicity, thought diversity, etc. I hope that people will continue to see that businesses simply cannot succeed with a homogeneous workforce.  Multiple points of view bring new ideas to the table, and will help identify roadblocks that you may not think about,” says Chen.

“While product management is traditionally considered heavy on the analytical side, the latest school of thought is that great products come from customer empathy.  Women product managers can add a lot of values to the field by bringing their dual qualities of empathy and analytical skills,” says Chung.

Final Thoughts

It’s evident that female product managers play an important role in the tech landscape due to their ability to bring a different perspective to the table. Robert Walters can help with building your Product team. Please reach out to Vivian Lo by emailing her at vivian.lo@robertwalters.com to discuss your product hiring needs.

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