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The Art of Thriving as a Woman in Product

This past weekend I had the opportunity to speak at ProductCamp Cincinnati about helping more women succeed in product management roles. My recent trip to the annual Women in Product conference inspired me to start a local discussion about how to increase the number of women in product leadership roles.
As Ryan Willging, organizer of this year’s ProductCamp Cincinnati wisely pointed out:

“(This issue) is one that is highlighted in “developer” culture but has yet to permeate “product” culture — but it should. Diversity in teams has been shown to be nothing but positive and doing everything we can to encourage women to enter product is beneficial.”Studies estimate about 35% of Product Management professionals in the U.S. are women.  On the surface, that number does not seem awful, but most of those 35% are concentrated in entry-level product management roles.
As they move up to Director, VP, and Chief Product Officer roles, the  percentage of women rapidly declines.  As a result, junior female product managers lack role models and, even worse, face unconscious bias, a lack of respect, and isolation.

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 PM roles can help themselves thrive and ascend to higher Product roles.  This starts with taking larger career risks, resisting the urge to 'people please,' and improving work-life blend.

Take Career RisksA (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 heard excuses such as:
  • “I want to stay where I am; I might get promoted next year.”
  • “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 an unwillingness by women to take career risks. I understand her frustration.  For years I was very risk averse with my own career.  If we want more women to ascend to product leadership roles we need to coach them to step outside their comfort zone.
Part of this means asking for the promotions we want (and deserve) rather than waiting for them to just happen.  We need to heed the  advice of US Soccer legend Abby Wambach from her 2018 Barnard commencement speech:

"Women, at this moment in history, leadership is calling us to say: 'Give me the effing ball. Give me the effing job. Give me the same pay that the guy next to me gets.   Give me the promotion.  The other key: pursuing roles we aren’t 100% qualified for.  There is an often-quoted statistic that men apply for a job when they meet only  60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them.  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 the best articles I’ve read this year 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 about the  estimated value of a new feature, has helped me suppress my natural inclination to people please and to effectively say “no.”

Master Work-Life Blend
To help women in PM roles thrive, it is essential to help women (and men) navigate 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; however, women also need to take a hard look at how they spend their most limited resource, time. 

Research has found that knowledge workers spend a great deal of their time—an average of 41%—on discretionary activities that offer little value and could be well-handled by others.  At work this could include attending meetings where we have no important role or spending time on easily automatable administrative tasks.  At home I would include social media, TV or household chores that could be delegated (or not done at all) to the list of low value activities.  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 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? Are you interested in helping to bring a  Women in Product  chapter here to Cincinnati?