Women in Product Management: Can You Break the Bias and Get Rewarded?

As a follow up to our Trailblazing Women in Product Management: How to Blaze Your Own Trail virtual panel last month, we invited Linda Lubin Thompson, Executive Coach and Consultant with L2T Leadership Development to dive deeper into the topic of how women can excel in the career of Product Management.

Overcoming Gender Bias

A client assumes you are in a subordinate role when you’re standing next to a male associate. A prospective customer only makes eye contact with your male colleague. A coworker calls you “angry” while your equally assertive male counterpart gets labeled “strong”. Does this sound familiar to you?

I got so tired of experiencing this and hearing similar experiences from women friends that I began researching, experimenting with new ways of behaving, and identifying strategies that can help women overcome the biases in our society. To help you deal with these issues, this article will identify some of the major challenges and pitfalls of gender bias, and give you ideas on how to address them.

Is Awareness the Fix?

When I first started reading about, hearing about, and experiencing gender bias at work, I thought, “Awareness—that’s what is needed. By making people aware of our unconscious biases, we will overcome them.” As Product Managers, we all know that any good product proposal has to start with identifying the problem our product is trying to solve. Why should this be any different?

Bias from the start

Sigh. I was so naïve. Gender bias is deeply rooted in most cultures, starting in infancy, where baby girls are reinforced more for smiling than baby boys. When I’d meet a new niece or nephew, I heard myself saying “Hi sweetie” versus “Hi buddy,” and “Who’s a pretty girl?” versus “Who’s a big boy?” Even though I was aware that girls and boys are treated differently, I’d catch myself doing the same thing! So, awareness, while necessary, is clearly insufficient. From a PM perspective, we often identify that “the current way of doing things” can make it very hard for users to want to change their behavior to adopt a better solution.

The Challenge for Recognition

Much has been written lately about women in technology leaving their companies and the field. Results of studies about the ongoing challenges for women fill Harvard Business Review’s pages. For example, in the article, A Study Used Sensors to Show That Men and Women Are Treated Differently by Laura Freeman and Ben Waber concluded that women who performed the same as men were promoted significantly less often.

Women leaders

And hardly a week goes by without another piece in the New York Times appearing about challenges women face in science, technology, board rooms, medicine, venture capital, etc. In the article, Picture a Leader. Is She a Woman?, when people were told to “draw an effective leader,” most people drew a man. In particular, in fields that have been historically dominated by men, and those that are closest to the product/customer power centers of the company, including Product Management, women have more difficulty having their voices heard, and having their contributions recognized and rewarded.

Getting your voice heard (or not)

A study cited in the New York Times article, Why Gorsuch May Not Be So Genteel on the Bench by Adam Liptak, found that “…male justices, perhaps not surprisingly, interrupt female justices far more often than the other way around. “Even though female justices speak less often and use fewer words than male justices,” the study found, “they are nonetheless interrupted during oral argument at a significantly higher rate.” Getting to the top of a male-dominated field, apparently, is no guarantee that you will be heard.

Some things I know for sure:

  • Just doing great work is not enough. In our light-speed, and now virtual world, it’s harder than ever to get your accomplishments recognized.
  • You can overcome the barriers to being appropriately recognized and rewarded for your great work.
  • It’s not going to happen by osmosis. You have to be deliberate about it.

The pitfalls

From my years of working with Silicon Valley leaders at all levels, I have seen the pitfalls from unconscious bias play out in lack of appropriate recognition, including:

  • The double binds of competence and likeability—women are judged to be either too “tough” or too “soft”
  • Being interrupted, talked over, or ignored in meetings
  • The judgment we and others make—if we talk about our accomplishments we’re bragging (see likeability above)

I’ve identified five behavioral, actionable strategies that can help you overcome the pitfalls.

Strategy #1: Make Sure You Get Heard

Stand up for each other—the women in the Obama White House used this tactic when they recognized they weren’t getting airtime in meetings. You can do the same. Amplify the original speaker by repeating her idea and ensuring she gets credit for it. Interrupt the interrupters—“Amy was speaking. Let’s hear the rest of what she has to say.” Identify male allies and ask them to do the same. And if you’re the only woman in a meeting with no “allies,” you can do the same for yourself. “Excuse me, I wasn’t finished speaking.” “I have more to say.” “To build on what I said earlier…” etc. And to overcome the “too tough, too aggressive” judgment that your necessary assertiveness may induce, say it with a smile, and give credit to others when it’s due.

Learn More Strategies

Tune into the on-demand webinar, No Bragging Required: How Women in PM Can Get the Recognition They Deserve to learn more about this technique. We unveiled the remaining four specific strategies you can employ to make sure your abundant contributions and significant accomplishments receive the recognition they deserve.

Watch the Webinar On-Demand

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Download the Trailblazing Women in Product Management E-Book

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About the Author


Linda Lubin Thompson is an Executive Coach and Consultant at L2T Leadership Development
As an executive coach and leadership consultant, Linda draws on more than 20 years of experience as a corporate Vice President and Director of Human Resources responsible for multiple areas of talent management and leadership/organizational development. In her consulting practice, L2T Leadership Development, Linda gives her clients the feedback they need to increase their effectiveness, leverage their strengths, and build self-awareness in how their behavior impacts others. She excels at helping high-potential leaders create new possibilities to achieve breakthroughs—in their goals, relationships, and team dynamics.

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