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How to Help More Women Succeed in Product Careers

One of my favorite professional events is right around the corner.  The annual Women In Product Conference is May 10-11 and it will be held virtually to allow more people to attend.  I highly recommend it for all women currently in Product roles (the conference has different tracks for entry-level professionals all the way up to Executive roles) as well as for Product leaders who want to help more women succeed in Product roles.

Studies estimate about 37% of Product Management professionals in the U.S. are women.  On the surface, that number does not seem awful but most of those 37% are concentrated in entry-level product management roles.  As they move up to Director, VP, and Chief Product Officer roles, the percentage declines.  One reason may be that women in product roles receive far less formal training and obtain promotions at a significantly lower pace.  The most recent State of Women in Product Management Report found only 19% of women received formal training from their employer vs. 35% of men.  It was also found that men get promoted to manager an average of 10 months earlier than women, and promoted to director an average of 11 months earlier, partly due to this lack of training among other factors.

While there is much we all can do to improve the pipeline of women going into Product, I want to focus first on how women currently in Product roles can advance.  In my experience, this starts with being encouraged to take larger career risks, resisting the urge to 'people please,' and having work environments that support women’s needs.


Applying Before Fully ‘Ready’

A (female) CEO recently shared with me that she was struggling to find women candidates for her new VP of Product role.  She told the recruiter she did not want to see a slate until it included a woman, and she was personally calling up women and asking them to apply.

No one was biting.  Why?  She kept hearing:

“Thanks for thinking of me, but I’m not qualified for a role like that.” 

She admitted to being very frustrated with what seemed like a reluctance by the women to pursue roles they weren't 100% qualified for. For example, LinkedIn’s Gender Insights Report found that women apply to 20% fewer jobs than men, despite similar job search behaviors, skills and qualifications.  The reason why is debatable, but the statistic certainly holds true in my Product hiring experience.  We need to coach women that it is ok, in fact it is expected, to pursue roles where we don’t meet 100% of the qualifications.  


Resist the Urge to People Please

One of my favorite articles for women in Product is Why I Can’t Be a Good Girl and a Good Product Leader written by Hope Gurion, former Chief Product Officer at CareerBuilder.  She reminds us that a big part of being a successful Product Manager is saying ‘no’ but those of us who are people pleasers (what Hope calls ‘good girls’) often struggle with clearly and confidently saying no.

Data is the best way to confidently and comfortably put a stop to sales staff, customers, and even executives who are begging for that new product feature you know will not advance the business.  Taking a fact-based approach to the estimated value of a new feature has helped me suppress my natural inclination to people please and to effectively say “no.”


Supportive Work Environments

To help women in Product roles thrive, it is essential that women (and men) are supported in navigating work-life tradeoffs. Like it or not, women still take on a disproportionate amount of child-rearing, elder care and household responsibilities.  Companies and managers can help by providing more work-life friendly benefits and also coaching their Product leaders on how to spend their most limited resource, time. 

Research has found that 51% of professionals say they spend too much time in meetings and on calls, distracting them from making an impact at work to some extent.  At work, this could include attending meetings where we have no important role.  In a hybrid-work environment, embrace asynchronous communication, and focus on outcomes rather than time.  The idea that work is measured in hours at the office has become a norm of the past.  Companies should promote transparency around how employees use their time and flexibility in how work gets done.  This way, we set a standard that team member participation is judged by contribution rather than time spent on location.  Time wasted can also include spending time on easily automatable administrative tasks.  When we spend time on these activities, we are taking away time from our more important activities – things that create real value and things that we are uniquely positioned to do.  Things such as: coaching our direct reports, spending time with customers, nurturing our families and self-care.  A critical part of improving the work-life blend is changing our distribution of time to grow the slice of the pie devoted to higher-value activities.

I invite you to join me in this discussion about how to increase the number of women in Product leadership roles.  What advice do you have? What organizations are you involved with?  If you’d like to join in on events to create, educate, and empower yourself and a global community of women Product professionals, become a member of the Women In Product community by joining your local chapter.