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!

18 thoughts on “Portraying Women in Product Management

  1. Robin Winslow

    I didn’t get very far into this article. I’m drawing two points from your article I agree with:

    - Women in any role tend to get less respect than men
    - Project Managers don’t get the respect they deserve

    However, I have *never* heard people say “He wanted more scope” “He wanted more control over the direction” of a *man* going into a PM role – and definitely not “PMs are like mini-CEOs”.

    I am totally on board with your quest to get women the respect they deserve in any role, but I really think the main thing you’re complaining about here is that specifically project managers of either sex don’t get enough respect.

    Reply
    1. Ellen Post author

      Hello!

      Thanks for your thoughts. FWIW, I am specifically talking about PRODUCT management, not Project Management. They’re very different roles. I think that might be why you haven’t heard some of the things I’m referring to. The mini-CEO thing is pretty commonly discussed. Here’s one overview: http://thenextweb.com/insider/2013/10/12/product-managers-mini-ceos/

      It also comes up in Good PM / Bad PM, under the idea of “CEO of a Product”:
      http://www.stanford.edu/class/e140/e140a/handouts/ProductMgmt.txt

      I’m not particularly on a quest to get people more respect.

      This is something I’ve seen/felt throughout my career. People often ask me why I decided to “just” go into PM vs. Engineering, but I’ve heard from male friends that they aren’t asked the same. Similarly people are more apt to refer to PM as a “non-technical/business” role when talking about female PM, but as a “technical PM” for male PM.

      Could definitely be different in the companies/situations you’ve worked in! Thanks for participating in conversation :)

      Reply
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  3. Sheridan Kates

    Thank you so much for writing this – I’m a female PM too, and I had exactly the same reaction as you when reading that article (which, as you say, was otherwise extremely good).

    I do think that in general, people inside the more established tech companies realise how important and technical the PM role is, but articles like this certainly don’t help educate those outside of those companies (and a general lack of understanding of what PMs do was something I hit up against when searching for product roles in startups). So thanks for spreading the word :)

    (Also FYI there’s one small typo: s/figuring out how to make something happening/figuring out how to make something happen/ )

    Reply
    1. Ellen Post author

      Hello! I realized that I was being remiss by answering dissenting comments, but not you. Thanks for sharing that you’ve had similar experiences!

      Reply
  4. James Krugler

    There’s a respect imbalance between engineers and product managers of any gender; I don’t think this is sexism, but rather, market economics.

    Designers design, engineers engineer. Put a smart team of product designers, visual designers, and software/hardware engineers and architects in a room, give them the information they need to make rational business decisions, appoint a lead engineer and a lead designer — and they’ll produce a great product.

    Fire the designers or the engineers, and in addition to stalling your production pipeline, you’ll be hard-pressed to find qualified replacements. The skills required takes decades to master, the work required takes hours upon hours of concentration, and the depth of complexity in the field is nearly unbounded.

    The worse the implementation team, the more helpful the product manager is in keeping them on target. The better the implementation team, however, the more they’ll chaff under the direction of a product manager who is grossly unqualified to be telling them how to meet business and market requirements through their efforts.

    That’s why less respect is given to PMs than to the individuals that actually make the product, absolutely independent of gender. The work is essential, but unless you’ve hired a bad team, the role isn’t, and the position is far more easily filled.

    Reply
    1. Ellen Post author

      Hello! Thanks for weighing in. I’ve definitely seen this perspective represented before. I think that the best analysis I’ve seen about “are PMs necessary” is this branch thread. There’s a lot of nuance that goes into the PM role. Your comment may be true for a below average (or possibly even average) PM, but definitely not for a great one. It also varies based on what type of Product you’re trying to make.

      I have definitely had a bunch of conversations today about how these things can be true for men in the PM role. While there is overlap, there’s definitely still a distinction between the genders.

      Reply
  5. Ana

    I loved the passion you infuse into this post. I have the same passion for programming. Which is why I think you would understand how I feel when I am constantly being mistaken for a PM ‘cos that’s what women in tech do. We’d rather both be accepted for who we are.

    Reply
    1. Ellen Post author

      yes! completely! I share your pain. People often assume that I work in recruiting/PR/community/ or etc. I’d much rather we get to tell people what our jobs are, rather than it being assumed.

      Reply
  6. Rich Mironov

    Thanks: on point, important and bravely put. I’d echo a few thoughts:

    - most engineers/dev teams don’t understand what we (product managers) do, and often don’t appreciate activities other than delivering specs/user stories and reviewing delivered code. We know that getting a whole product shipped is much more than code, that business models/pricing really matter, that market positioning and clear benefits often drive the winning product rather than raw features, and that people/organizations/politics are an inevitable part of getting revenue products out the door. We can’t depend on our dev friends to always understand/appreciate/validate/celebrate what we do. Terrific when they do…

    - yup, some of us have been been engineers, and decided to do product management instead. Because it’s different, and harder, and requires a distinct mix of skills. And we’ve made active choices. Developers will naturally assume that being a developer is the best/most important role in the company. BTW, sales reps believe the same thing about their roles.

    - yup, deeply entrenched general biases about women in tech. And as devs. And as product managers. And as execs. Tech can be monochromatic, to its detriment. We shouldn’t let Barbie convince us that “math class is tough” for girls ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NO0cvqT1tAE ).

    Reply
  7. Alejandra

    where I think women have an advantage is that male product managers build products that are manly but the truth is there is a huge opportunity for products geared towards women. Tell me who started birchbox and Gilt Groupe?! Empathy is part of our natural tendencies and that is something that we need to leverage to build great products That was my peep talk!

    But you got the gist of it “women work just as hard to get into PM, and then work harder to get respect and stay in their roles”. What is more worrying for me is that the moment you write this article you are validating the whole thing and sometimes being indifferent is the best weapon. Make it a non-issue so that one day people will see it as normal to have either female or males PM. As an example, I was raised avoiding any gender bias in a super conservative country no less. I was told to be self-sufficient and have a career and skills to make money. I don’t see my self as exceptional at all being a female PM and when I encounter people they are shocked at my life choices. I think I was raised thinking my gender was irrelevant in getting what I wanted. We need to raise the next generation of devs and PM like that.

    Doesn’t mean my life is perfect either, today my one regret was not finishing software engineering. That is in my opinion a much tougher barrier to overcome than being women in PM roles.

    Reply
  8. Natalia Burina

    Thanks for writing this Ellen. I have also found it to be true. Many years ago I went through the coding interview ringer at Microsoft and passed. The salary and level negotiations didn’t go well and I ended up refusing their offer. I kept interviewing and subsequently landed a PM job instead.

    As an engineer I faced a lot more sexism and hostility then as a PM. The PM role put me squarely in a leadership position. It went from everyone questioning everything I did (even though I knew very well what I was doing and was better qualified then a lot of people who were questioning me) to here run everything as a PM. It was the best career move I made (though I was initially reluctant due to fear that it would make me less technical).

    I too take issues with the NYTimes article and PM shaming women. Many male engineers also transition into PM without any stigma. They are also automatically accorded respect for it.

    Reply
  9. Tess

    Thank you so much for this piece. It really brought to light some unconscious biases I had about PMs, and I feel terrible about having made them. I really appreciate that you took the time to educate.

    Reply
  10. Bo Ren

    Thanks for voicing this Ellen! I definitely carry a chip on my shoulder as a female cracking into PM from a non-technical, non-traditional background. For me it’s been a double-folded barrier to entrance: 1) being a woman 2) coming from a nontechnical background – no MBA or CS degree.The hardest barrier for me was convincing engineers and founders that I can be just as much of a creative problem-solver as the rest of them.

    I absolutely agree w/ your statement: “You don’t end up as a PM by “mistake.” You end up as a PM because you did a ton of work.” Every step along the way I had to prove myself that I am a indeed a software person with a technical aptitude to solve challenging problems and possess the CS language fluency to win the respects of male engineers. Now that I am in the space, I still feel like there is a long way to go to make product management more welcoming of folks who don’t fit the cookie cutter image of a PM! This is my personal mission to open the doors to minorities, women, and non-technical folks.

    Looking back it was incredibly messy and chaotic (in your words) getting here with a series of close approximation, trial and error, and hard lessons learned but I am glad. It’s surreal b/c I feel like the poppy in a field of daffodils :) Keep on writing!

    Best,
    –bo

    Reply
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  12. Tasha

    Hi Ellen, I’ve enjoyed reading some of your other posts so thought I’d comment with thoughts on this one.

    I too read that NYT article and overall found it to be well-researched and insightful. I completely agree with your objections to the first line you cite, but am honestly surprised by your assertions that female PMs don’t receive the same kind of respect as their male counterparts.

    “We never say “PMs are like mini-CEOs” while talking about women in PM.”
    “We don’t celebrate women going into Product Management.”
    “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.”

    Really? Curious where you’re getting this from and if others have had similar experiences. I haven’t gotten that impression from any of the tech companies I’ve worked at as a PM nor from the media; in fact I’d say PM is still a fairly esoteric field, opaque to the layperson and different enough from one org to another that it doesn’t often get written up. I can’t think of a female PM being heaped with attention in the media, but I can’t think of a male one either.

    “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.”

    Have you seen that case made elsewhere? Because the article itself (“technology’s man problem”) seemed entirely focused on making the case that the culture of tech (and dev in particular) isn’t female-friendly (and cites a laundry list of real life examples). This, in turn, results in few women being attracted to the field as well as an exodus of women from the field. Hardly seemed like they were trying to blame women (or PM) for a lack of female engineers.

    “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.”

    Right after this sentence, the article links out to another piece about the myth of the non technical startup employee. There are a number of examples in that piece that highlight how non-technical employees (esp those in operations) are undervalued and even treated badly in engineering-driven organisations. This isn’t speculation or an assertion by the NYT, rather a reference to a real (and different) issue in the tech industry (which happens in pretty much every industry). I disagree with their generalisation that women mostly go into PM and their lumping together of PMs with “non-technical people with soft skills” (who they then say don’t get much respect) — but this reflects their ignorance about the role more than anything.

    Anyway, thought I’d share. Like I said, would be interested in hearing where else you’ve gotten this impression from beyond the couple of lines in the NYT article.

    Reply
  13. Tasha

    Hi Ellen, I’ve enjoyed reading some of your other posts so thought I’d comment with thoughts on this one.

    I too read that NYT article and overall found it to be well-researched and insightful. I completely agree with your objections to the first line you cite, but am honestly surprised you say female PMs don’t receive the same kind of respect as their male counterparts.

    “We never say “PMs are like mini-CEOs” while talking about women in PM.”
    “We don’t celebrate women going into Product Management.”
    “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.”

    Curious where you’re getting this from and if others have had similar experiences. I haven’t gotten that impression from any of the tech companies I’ve worked at as a PM nor from the media; in fact I’d say PM is still a fairly esoteric field, opaque to the layperson and different enough from one org to another that it doesn’t often get written up. I can’t think of a female PM being heaped with attention in the media, but I can’t think of a male one either.

    “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.”

    Have you seen that case made elsewhere? Because the article itself (“technology’s man problem”) seemed entirely focused on making the case that the culture of tech (and dev in particular) isn’t female-friendly (and cites a laundry list of real life examples). This, in turn, results in few women being attracted to the field as well as an exodus of women from the field. Didn’t seem like they were trying to blame women (or PM) for a lack of female engineers.

    “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.”

    Right after this sentence, the article links out to another piece about the myth of the non technical startup employee. There are a number of examples in that piece that highlight how non-technical employees (esp those in operations) are undervalued and even treated badly in engineering-driven organisations. This isn’t speculation or an assertion by the NYT, rather a reference to a real (and different) issue in the tech industry (which happens in pretty much every industry). I disagree with their generalisation that women mostly go into PM and their lumping together of PMs with “non-technical people with soft skills” (who they then say don’t get much respect) — but this reflects their ignorance about the role more than anything.

    Anyway, like I said, I agree with a lot of your points but genuinely curious if (where else) you’ve gotten the impression from beyond this NYT article.

    Reply

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