Women Don’t Make The Best Product Managers

Jess Johnson
Oct 18, 2016 · 5 min read

Note: This piece is done in response to Marty Cagan’s Women Make the Best Product Managers

Well, at least not innately. Over the past 9 months or so I’ve been fairly active in the Women in Product slack community and have met some amazing, accomplished women. I am consistently humbled and inspired by what they’ve done. What has become clear time and time again is the blood, sweat, and tears these women put into self improvement to become the product managers they are.

Given this you might surprised at how I cringed when I read Marty Cagan’s Why Women Make The Best Product Managers. I love that Cagan is bringing more of a spotlight to women in product roles. I love that he asserts how great they can be and I was totally impressed he used all female examples for ‘Behind Every Product’; calling attention to strong, successful females in product roles helps normalize their presence. I’m sure there are many great undiscovered women PMs out there but if this article helps a couple more female candidates to be considered, I’m glad it was written.

That said, I don’t agree that women are necessarily better product managers. I am female. And, I would like to think I’m a decent product manager. Maybe there’s some correlation there but I really don’t think it’s causation. My accomplishments, and those of my peers, come from the effort we’ve put into the discipline not an innate ability.

Cagan asks “why are so many of them exceptional at the job?” He asserts it’s the presence of softer skills but I wanted to look at some of the other reasons it might appear that the women product managers out there are so exceptional. Side note: while I write from the perspective of a woman, many of these may be true for other groups doubly true for ‘double minorities.’

1) Women aren’t given a chance.

Men are chosen on potential, women on proven track record. For product managers, this may mean a woman is forced to prove ability at every milestone whereas a man might be given a role on the basis of promise. Bo Ren wrote a great article about witnessing this first hand at Facebook. On the bright side, this may lead to great female PMs with proven track records. On the negative side, women may never be given the chance to be a bad product manager so that they can learn to be a good product manager.

No one is born knowing how to be a great product manager. Being given that chance when you’re unproven allows for a possibility you’ll do it wrong but learning from mistakes is crucial to eventual success. What would be really be awesome is to have more female product managers. Period. Even if they aren’t great yet.

2) Only the strong survive.

Women leave tech. Unless you’re ignoring conversations on diversity, this should be no surprise to you. While I jokingly say ‘only the strong survive’ women leave tech at higher rates than men for any number of reasons. Maybe the ones left are literally the cream of the crop who have fought harder, had more good breaks, and are just overall the most accomplished.

One personal anecdote: once when given a new team from a male PM, I had my manager pull my engineers aside to see how I was faring. While I appreciate a quick feedback loop, this was in direct contrast to the attitude towards the previous PM who kept getting opportunities despite engineering complaints. I was lucky that I’d quickly established a strong rapport with my team but imagine the dark side of this — I had no margin for error. If I made a mistake, I would have been pulled from the team.

Mistakes are inevitable even among the best PMs . Across dozens or hundreds of these moments, a mistake will be found and if women are being measured to a different standard than men, it may be that much easier for women to be picked off from the herd.

3) We’re forced to be emotionally aware

Kudos to Ellen Chisa for this point.

Cagan points to a reduced ego and emotional intelligence as reasons women make great product managers. Both of these traits are fairly stereotypically associated with women (and some research agrees though it’s unclear what the cause of this discrepancy is).While there may be correlation, it might also be the bar is set much higher for women’s emotional intelligence and that if you fail to meet the emotionally intelligent woman criteria you will fail to advance.

While I’d like to think I’m not emotionally unintelligent, I, like many of my female friends in tech, have at some point in my career gotten the feedback that I’m too aggressive. In contrast, despite the how outnumbered women are to men, I can only think of one male friend who has ever heard the same. Getting this feedback forced me to adapt and become better at active listening and much more subtle in my approach to some issues. Regardless of where I started in terms of this, I was forced to grow this skill to succeed.

So what?

Is Cagan wrong in his assessment of disproportionately great product managers being female? Not necessarily. If all these biases tend to cut women out then hypothetically maybe, on average, female Product Managers are of a higher caliber than male Product Managers. I don’t feel I have enough data or that I’m in a position where I can make this judgement but let’s pretend for a minute this is true. In this case, the reasoning isn’t that women are innately better but that they’re undervalued.

Let’s see how this might work in practice: Candidate A and Candidate B have similar work experience with a few years in PM. Candidate A is male and demonstrates more traditionally male characteristics — he is what people describe as a ‘leader’ and ‘driven’. Candidate A is what managers think of when they think of a ‘Product Manager.’ Candidate B is female and demonstrates more traditionally female characteristics she is ‘nurturing’ and ‘emotionally aware.’ For Candidate B to compete in Product Manager interviews, she must also be able to compete on traditional leadership roles. However, her emotional intelligence is taken for granted. If Candidate A had similar characteristics they might be seen as a plus but for Candidate B it’s just assumed she innately has these abilities. Candidate B is thus undervalued because she’s bringing skills to the table that, to Cagan’s point, have a high value but aren’t necessarily sought out in the interview process.

The great news about this is that Cagan’s instructions on getting more women in the hiring pipeline still apply — you should actively seek out women product managers. That said it’s not because we’re innately better. Instead, it’s a Moneyball-like twist where you’re more likely to get a great deal out of it — we don’t look like the right candidates to many people so it’s easy to pass us over for people who more stereotypically fit the mold of a product manager. Back to the Moneyball analogy, this is exactly how the Oakland A’s managed to succeed despite a lower budget — they looked for opportunities to sign undervalued recruits. In some cases for PMs this may be literally true on a salary-level while in others she might be more open to opportunities because she’s not being given the same opportunities.

Women aren’t better product managers but, hey, maybe the ones who make it through are.

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