Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

Code Like A Girl

The Women in Product

(Picture credit: Sheryl Sandberg’s FB Post.) Sheryl Sandberg, with Deb Lui and Fidji Simo, co-founders of Women in Product (to her left and right)

Product people are eternal optimists. We believe we have a solution for almost every problem. We can “build” our way towards any dream.

We are a data driven lot. We need market validation, we need to understand the scope of a problem and the opportunity before we double down and go after it.

And so, when 350 senior women in product came together, connected and learned from each other at the fantastic inaugural Women in Product Event at Facebook HQ this past week, it finally became clear to the PM in me, that the problems I face as individual are not that isolated after all.

At #WIP2016, as I listened to the panels, spoke with other women and reflected on my own experiences regarding challenges women in product have faced, I noticed some patterns in the conversations and problems we were uncovering, specifically for/with women in product.

Here I share the top three strategies for women in tech that resonated with me.

But first, a few disclaimers: This post isn’t a comprehensive review of all the great content and conversation at WIP2016. Nor does this post hold us women in tech responsible for creating or solving the complicated obstacles and realities that we face. I’m writing in the hope that, by being open and vulnerable, I can help other women in product, and engage men, women and companies in solutions we all build together. Here goes…

1. “Women are not clear about what they want and what they are willing to do to have it”

The Leadership Panel with Yardley Yip (GM, Trulia), Joanna Lambert (VP, Paypal), Steph Hannon(CTO, Hillary for America), Aparna Chennapragada (Director, Google), Ami Vora(Director, Facebook)

Women are not clear about what they want and what they are willing to do to have it

— Joanna Lambert, Vice President of Consumer Product and Consumer Financial Services at PayPal

Early in the day, on the Leadership panel, Jo Lambert (the Vice President of Consumer Product and Consumer Financial Services at PayPal) shared stories about how stepping up and asking for what she wanted was the key to her career growth. Lesley Grosblatt (VP of Product & Business Operations for theBoardlist) shared stories about how she stumbled into product management by asking for a product role early in her career.

At the same time, Sheryl Sandberg, in her talk said she is still surprised by the number of men knocking on her door for promotions while she continually has to convince women in her org that they are ready for their next challenge in their careers.

Time and again, we heard that women just don’t ASK for what they want.

While sad, this is not surprising. In separate studies cited in this HBR article, men were eight times more likely to negotiate than a woman, men were more likely to speak up when they thought they were paid lesser and men placed themselves in the middle of negotiations 4 times more often than women.

According to Jo Lambert, Sheryl Sandberg and the HBR article — Women often don’t get what they want and deserve because they don’t ask for it. Moreover, the HBR article says, when women got unhappy with their jobs, they quit and took another role rather than negotiate.

Asking for what I want has been incredibly hard for me, but every time I have been clear and asked for what I have wanted, I have had success. In fact, the only times I got an increase in salary were when I stepped out and asked for it. The projects I got at work also were mine because I asked for them.

The phases of my professional career when I have done the most amount of work and assumed that I would be recognized for it, rather than asked to be recognized for it, never really panned out.

Is it because of my upbringing? Is it because women don’t ask? Is it because I don’t want to be perceived as driven and ambitious? At this point in my career, I have decided it does not matter. I just need to follow the advice of Jo, Lesley and Sheryl, admit what I want, step out and ask for it. And while it might not be easy, I will step out of my comfort zone and do it. And I will call you out and make sure you ASK as well. You’re welcome 🙂

2. “Men Have Sponsors But Women Have Mentors”

Deb Liu, Vice President of Platform and Marketplace, Facebook

At some point in her opening talk, Deb Liu, Vice President of Platform and Marketplace at Facebook, said exactly this and it hit me like a ton of bricks.

Men have sponsors and women have mentors.

Through the day, Deb spoke on stage and off about how her sponsors (both men and women) have been key to her career. She spoke about the time when she almost quit tech but stayed on thanks to people who had her rethink her decision.

As I explored more in the area I realized that Deb’s experience (and my own experience) is similar to the women participants at Kellog’s 2015 Executive Management Program who indicated that 86% of the time, having a sponsor is more closely correlated to their promotion than having a mentor.

Women are continually over-mentored and under-sponsored

Have you seen how men will sponsor more junior employees (both men and women) along and literally pull them along the ladder? I have. I have seen that it happens several times. Apparently, it is just what men do. It is a natural thing for them. In my experience, women will hesitate, overthink, women wait for someone who is twice as good as everyone else before they can sponsor that person.

Most men we spoke to about sponsorship confirm the natural “quid pro quo” characteristics inherent in their relationships. A typical comment came from Mark, a successful serial entrepreneur in the tech sector and CEO at Pfister Strategy Group, Inc., “An overwhelming majority of those I have sponsored in my arena have been male. It’s not that I am not willing to sponsor women, it’s just that they haven’t proactively asked for my support, and when they have, they haven’t presented a compelling reason for me to sponsor them.”

I myself have had many mentors all along, but sponsors? One, maybe two. I have been lucky to experience the tangible career advancement a sponsor brings. Until I had a sponsor myself, I did not realize that being a sponsor does not take away from the fact that I am good at what I do.

Being a sponsor means making a tangible difference in the career of someone I believe in. It is empowering to think that I can do that and I am eager to sponsor women(and men!) I know and believe in. I am eager to encourage other women and men to become sponsors themselves, because, with fewer than 15% women in top leadership positions in companies, we have a long way to go.

3. Those Loud Voices in Our Heads Don’t Speak the Truth

What do the voices in your head say? Do they say you are the best in the industry and you will become the CEO of the company where you are working? Does the voice in your head say that you have come so far in your career because you are good and you will continue to advance at an incredible pace?

Or does the voice in your head say you are just not ready? That you are too aggressive? When you dream of a successful career in 10 years, is your voice so quiet …..because how dare you dream??! I know because this is what I hear in my head. Over and over again.

So when Sheryl Sandberg asked this question to the 350 women in the room, I did not stand up.

Have you ever said aloud that you would become the CEO of the company you work at?

Sheryl is a dynamic speaker with an intense presence.

Of course, this did not surprise Sheryl who went on to tell us that there were only a handful of women that stood up because of the voices we hear in our heads.

Women make up 20% of engineering graduates, but it’s been estimated that nearly 40% of women who earn engineering degrees either quit or never enter the profession.

Sheryl likened this situation to both men and women starting to run a race they are both equally qualified to run. Yet fewer than 15% go all the way (Women only make up 14% of the top executive positions at Fortune 500 companies). 10 years into our careers, 52% of us women quit our careers in tech. The most fascinating this is that I have more 15 years of experience as a developer and product builder in the tech field and I would be lying if I said I have never considered quitting. The voices in my head continue to tell me I am no good, not ready …you name it. But I am starting to shut them down and you should too.

Because …

YOU are what a leader looks like. — Deb Liu

Going into the conference, I was skeptical about connecting with just women as I am a firm believer that solutions come from everywhere. BUT I was wrong. And I could not be happier about being wrong.

For the first time, I was with my tribe. It was an incredible day of learning, connecting and empowering each other. The best is yet to come.

What is Next ?

As a PM, I see solutions all the way. But I also cannot help but say “What IF” ?

What IF Elizabeth Thompson had been admitted into the Royal Academy in 1879? What if she had not been rejected 3 times to the membership in the British Royal Academy (between 1879 and 1881) because “men of fair moral character” were eligible for membership? It wasn’t until 1936 that Laura Knight, became the the first woman to be elected to be a member of the Royal Academy — more than 50 (!) years after Elizabeth Thompson came so close to becoming the first women in the Royal Academy herself.

What IF the PC ads in 1983 did not market PCs as toys for boys …maybe the drop of women in computer science would not as drastic as it was. And this reverse came after decades of women pioneers in the field of computer science.

There are so many WHAT IFs, but I am here to be a part of the solution.

Because that is what product people do … we innovate, we build solutions.

As Sheryl finished up her talk at WIP2016, she asked us to dream big. And then she challenged us to share that dream aloud with someone before the end of the day.

I did and am sharing it here again —

Over the next few months, as I explore my next leadership role in product, I am going to find the next place where I can build and ship product that impacts human lives in substantial ways. I will treat myself with the self-respect I deserve and own the achievements I have created along the way. And regardless of where I am (I hope to land some place truly awesome!) I will do my bit to mentor, sponsor and lead at least ten other women into product and leadership positions.

Because I am what a leader looks like.

Huge thanks to the Women in Product Team for all their hard work on the event.

Thanks to LisaStone, Pree Kolari and Elisa Camahort for reviewing my post and providing me with their thoughts and feedback.

If you like this post, don’t forget to recommend & share it and then check out more great Code Like A Girl stories.