5 Key lessons I’ve learned as a senior woman in Product
Recently, I was honored to be recognized on the first-of-its-kind list of the Top Moms of Color in Tech. It made me reflect on my own experiences as a woman in Product Management. If you’re a woman in PM, I hope that the stories and tips I share today can help you along your journey.
How I discovered product management
I grew up in Hyderabad, India in a middle class family — my mom, a high school teacher, my dad, an engineer, and my brilliant older sister. When I graduated from high school, I was expected to pick one of two reliable career paths — medicine or engineering, just like the millions of Indian middle class students before me. Well, I couldn’t stand the sight of blood so… I graduated with an electrical engineering degree :) .
Pursuing a master’s degree in the USA was an uncommon choice for a girl then. Thanks to my progressive parents, I boarded a plane for the first time ever to pursue a degree in computer engineering at Ohio State University, Columbus, OH (Go Buckeyes!). With just $200 in my pocket, I was on my own for the first time in my life — in a new country, paying rent, buying my own groceries, and starting to navigate life as a woman in tech.
While pursuing my master’s, I stumbled upon a set of courses in applied software engineering with Dr. Furrukh Khan and fell in love with coding! When I graduated, I was accepted into a Software Engineer in Test (SDET) role at Microsoft! It was there that I discovered that there was such a role as a Product Manager. Wait, spend my time talking to customers and building cool stuff? That sounded rad :) I was intrigued, and since the team had a PM opening, I was able to transition into that role!
5 Lessons I’ve learned as a woman in PM
I’ve learned so much as a product manager over the last 15+ years, much of it at Microsoft. But, the path of being a PM was not easy. Over the years, I have developed some personal strategies to work through these issues. These strategies might not work for everyone but I hope I am paying it forward for at least one person!
Lesson #1: Women need to work hard to get noticed as a leader
Research has found that when people think of leaders, they often think about a man first. This confirms what many women have long suspected: getting noticed as a leader in the workplace is more difficult for women than for men. As a woman, you will likely be man-splained, spoken over, doubted, and pushed far more than the men in the room. [source] .
- Have confidence in yourself. You have earned a seat at this table and don’t let anyone question it. Being confident will project leadership!
- Actively build your network of people who can speak to your work. Within the Dropbox Paper team, my peers and my reports are my support system and they make me more effective as a leader.
- Ask for feedback openly and frequently: Research also shows that women get less frequent and lower-quality feedback than men. By openly inviting feedback, you will increase the chances of getting it.
- Be yourself. Not all leaders are the same. Unfortunately, many biases and stereotypes exist about women in the workplace. I lean into my natural strengths, regardless of the stereotypes, and so should you.
Lesson #2: Find allies and companies that value women
In my career, I’ve been very lucky to find allies who can amplify and advocate for my work. Allies can come in many forms — your manager, peers, direct reports, and your extended network. I’ve really appreciated it when they amplify my ideas or call attention to the fact that I was interrupted in a meeting!
- Share the research. Allies can make meetings more inclusive, advocate for, provide insightful feedback, and ensure career growth opportunities for women. Encourage more people to be allies by sharing data and research about women in tech. (e.g. this talk by Karen Caitlin and the Women in the workplace study).
- Reach out to other women. Talk to women on your teams. Join forums and attend conferences that help you understand which companies truly value women. (e.g. Moms in Tech Facebook group and Women in Product)
- Look closely at the teams. Teams without any women on them are a big red flag for me. Check to see if the leadership has sufficient representation of women that can serve as role models for you. When I joined Dropbox, it meant a lot to me to see Condoleezza Rice on the Dropbox board. Also, we’ve since promoted and hired more women to the leadership team here.
- Ask what companies are doing. It’s very easy for companies to pay lip service and talk the talk so look for companies that are willing to walk the walk. For instance, Dropbox recently held a Senior women’s panel on March 8th to celebrate International Women’s Day.
Lesson #3: Be willing to make the life choices that work for you
As a parent of two little boys (7 and 5), I have a unique perspective of working in tech. I have seen firsthand how hard it is for parents to navigate work and life. For instance, I’ve often been asked, especially by young women, what the “best time” is to have kids. My answer now is “The right time? When it works for you.”
I put off having kids in my early career because I had seen firsthand the bias women faced, the lack of support or progress, widely called “mommy tracking.” For me, having a strong career in place before I had kids was really helpful in considering choices such as quitting work to take care of them full time or co-founding my own business. However, I’ve seen other parents have had kids early and still made it work!
- Set your priorities. Know what is most important to you and have an active convo with your spouse/family before you have your baby. Surround yourself with people who will support your decisions. For instance, if you choose to marry, the degree of support from your spouse can make a huge difference to the choices you will make so choose wisely!
- Break the stereotypes. Earlier, I used to hide the fact that I have kids but now, I talk about my kids often to normalize it and let me my teams know that I value all parts of my life. I want others to see that it is possible to be a parent and have a successful career.
- Look closely at the company/team policies. Do they support parenting practices? For instance, if your know you’ll want to breastfeed your child, look into whether the company has dedicated mothers rooms so you can pump at work. Check if the teams have a good mix of parents/non-parents who can help create your support system. Check to see whether they offer flexible working options to help meet your family’s needs.
Lesson #4: Don’t put up with jerks
As women, we unfortunately, see more than our fair share of jerks. I once had a lead put his name on my presentation and another who threatened to ruin my career if I shared negative feedback with HR. Thankfully, I’ve never felt unsafe or harassed but I have great empathy for those who have faced any kind of verbal, emotional or physical abuse at work. Know this: you do not have to put up with it. Dropbox is one of the first places I feel truly embodies this value. Jerks are not tolerated here!
- Set boundaries and keep them. If you just grin and bear it, things will not change
- Reach out to your allies. Inform HR; document as much as you can in writing, including how it made you feel and who else saw it happen
- If nothing works, leave. There are companies that will support you; you just need to find them
Lesson #5: Pay it forward
Ladies, we’re all are aware of the low numbers and appalling research about women in tech. I feel fortunate to have this role and I am grateful to the many women who paved this path for me, so I never take it lightly.
- Watch for opportunities. It’s so tempting to keep your head down but we are here on the shoulders of the women before us and represent countless others, so please pay it forward. You don’t have to be a VP or above to make a difference!
- Reach out. If you’re on a team with other women, take the time to reach out and have a coffee. It can be very isolating to be the only woman and not have the support of a community. Recently, we started the “Women in Paper” group for all the women working on Dropbox Paper across PM, Engineering, Design, Marketing, User research, UX writing, QA, and Product Analysts. We are constantly supporting each other and have deep conversations on what it means to be successful here.
We need more women in product
Products built by diverse teams are better because who we are impacts what we build. New perspectives and backgrounds can completely change how we build products! We want global thinkers, doers, and builders to help us understand the challenges and barriers of how people interact with our products. The obstacles women face in today’s workplaces are not simple and if we want to finally make real progress here, all of us — men, women, and organizations — all need to step up and take decisive action to make it happen.
We are a small but growing number and we are always looking for amazing women to come and join the Dropbox Product team. Please come and join us and make product management a better place for all!