Portraying Women in Product Management

I’m sick of how we portray women in Product Management.

From the New York Times:

“Women often take on the role of product manager, or P.M., which entails the so-called soft skills of managing people and bridging the business and engineering divide. Yet even though this is an essential job, it’s the purely technical people — not the businesspeople — who get the respect in the tech industry.”*

We don’t celebrate women going into Product Management. Instead, we couch it as “well women don’t feel comfortable going into pure technology.” We emphasize that “the role is full of soft skills.” We discuses how it’s “non-threatening,” for developers to have female PMs. Then we assert that “pure technologists are the ones with all the respect.”

We never say “PMs are like mini-CEOs” while talking about women in PM.

When we talk about men going into Product Management it’s framed in a completely different light. “He wanted more scope.” “He wanted more control over the direction.” We fit the role into masculine traits of leadership and control. We view it as a step towards company leadership. The media rarely, if ever, applies those traits to women in PM.

That’s problematic.

What’s more harmful is where we take that logic. We start looking is at Product Management as a reason that we don’t have enough women in Engineering. The women in PM must have wanted to be engineers and then got stuck in Product Management! That isn’t true, and it’s downright insulting to women who are in PM.

It isn’t easy to become a PM.

First of all, it isn’t easy to become a PM. There are far fewer PM jobs in the industry. The ratio of PM:Engineering is usually from 1:2 on the super high end (Microsoft) down to 1:10+ many other places. There just aren’t that many of these jobs.

It’s also hard to get one. There’s a lot of specific subject matter you need to learn. You don’t learn to be a PM in school. Most PMs already went through the work of getting an engineering degree. On top of that, they combed through books, essays, and countless Quora answers.

You also need to learn a lot of specific subject matter to get a good PM job. When you prep for PM interviews, you want to know the product as well as the person interviewing does. When they’ve worked on it for years, that’s near-impossible. I tend to put at least a week into prepping for a full day PM interview. Getting my current job took six months, 10 interviews, and I wrote a full spec.

You don’t end up as a PM by “mistake.” You end up as a PM because you did a ton of work.

On top of that, you also do a bunch of extra work just because you’re a woman. The media keeps talking about PM is a role of “soft skills!” and “coordination!” That sounds like being an event organizer, and that’s not what a PM is.

In PM, you negotiate and persuade people without having any actual power. If you think about most of the media’s current discussions about women in management, they also apply to the PM role. If you’re assertive about what we need to build, are you bitchy? If you react strongly to a proposed feature cut, are you emotional or passionate? It’s a precarious balance. During my career, I’ve gotten feedback that comparable male peers didn’t get.

Women work just as hard to get into PM, and then work harder to get respect and stay in their roles. Assuming women are PMs because they “didn’t try hard enough” is insulting. Instead, we should be celebrating that we have a key role that seems to have a healthy mix of men and women.

Women PMs should focus on moving to Engineering.

On top of that, the subtle insinuation under this piece is that the women who ended up in PM are the ones who “should have” been engineers. Blaming the PM discipline for our lack of female engineers is flawed.

Being a great PM and being a great Engineer do not need the same skill sets. Engineers spend their time solving problems and figuring out how to make something happen. Product Managers spend their time figuring out what the user needs and how to balance that need with any others. Engineers tend to get to focus on fewer projects, but Product Management can end up being reactionary.

Take the Kickstarter office. If you’d come into the office a year ago with the simplistic logic that female PMs should be engineers, I would have been your “best bet.” I’m on the PM team. I have an Engineering degree, I write “Engineer” on my customs forms**, and I did a cute hack week project that involved writing code.

We did move a woman to the engineering team this year – and – surprise! It wasn’t me. It was Emily, who shared her experience over here. Emily has a different skill set from mine. She likes solving the technical implementation details of a project. She doesn’t want to decide how it should be – she wants to build it. She’s going to be a great engineer.

We’re blaming the wrong people.

Let’s stop implying that the women in PM are the reason we don’t have Women in Engineering.

I’m tired of people implying that my job is somehow lady-person “soft skills.” I’m sick of feeling like I have to defend my choice to be a PM over an engineer, when my male friends never do. I’m sick of the media subtly implying that the women we need to get into engineering jobs are the ones that are already PMs. It makes me feel like I’ve failed, even though no one else would say that’s true.

We have better places to focus than on “why women end up in PM.”

Quantitatively: Most women are doing jobs that aren’t Product Management. Numbers-wise, we’re better off recruiting those women to be Engineers.
Qualitatively: the skill sets of PM/Engineering aren’t the same. Let’s find some women who like puzzles, focusing on details, and implementing solutions.
Financially: Product Managers already have a comparable salary to engineers. We’re not going to help any salary gap issues by moving Product Managers.

Let’s stop pondering “why we have so many women PMs” and instead make engineering accessible to everyone.

* This is a very small piece of the article. The rest of the article makes a ton of good points. I’ve just noticed a similar trend across tech pieces, and I’m sick of it. I felt similarly while reading Kate Losse’s The Boy Kings.
** Thanks Jeff Hawkins!