Gender Differences in Product Management

This past week I’ve had many thought provoking discussions about the career choices that are available to working women in product management. Many of the discussions have been sparked by the news of Marissa Mayer’s appointment to the role of CEO of Yahoo! while she is in the second trimester of her pregnancy. Aside from the discussions about whether the ex-Google engineer will be able to turn tide for Yahoo!’s business growth and relevancy to users and advertisers, the heated discussions in our office has been around what is realistically achievable as a working parent.

 

The role of a Product Manager is often likened to that of a CEO. The question that is on many people’s minds right now is what has to give when you have family responsibilities (to children or aging parents), as well as a leadership role? Given that women still perform most of society’s unpaid work, it is women that primarily struggle to maintain both their private and work life sometimes to the detriment of their careers.

 

As both an ex-Yahoo! employee still lamenting the heyday of Yahoo! in the late 90s and early 2000s, as well as a working mother, I think it’s fantastic that the Yahoo! board has had the foresight to give Marissa Mayer the opportunity to lead the company into a new era. What annoys me is the controversy around hiring a pregnant woman into a leadership role. Why is society so judgmental? Isn’t it her choice as to whether she will be able to juggle her big professional role with her role as a mother once her baby arrives?

 

There are countless women in leadership roles who continue to work through their pregnancy to the day they deliver and bounce back to work within weeks of delivery, including Adrienne Tan, Co-Founder and Director of Brainmates. Adrienne will be the first to tell you not just about the joys of being a working mother and business owner, but also about surviving the sleep deprivation in the first few years of her child’s life. Our team and clients who have seen Adrienne juggle her family responsibilities with her work over the last few years, are filled with admiration for her stamina, bringing her zing (& bling jewellery) to work every day to run and grow both our business and taking the product management industry to new heights.

 

A common theme that comes up in my conversations with product managers and product marketers returning to the workforce after maternity leave is whether it is possible to continue their career trajectory and still maintain a happy, balanced family life. I have observed that many new mothers returning to the workforce are not naturally drawn to applying to senior and leadership product professional jobs that they would be suitable for. The resistance stems from the perception that the roles are very operational and require much face time and collaboration with peers to drive results, not to mention long hours and teleconferences at odd hours with offshore contacts.

 

The female product managers in our team have been discussing the various choices we have all made at pivotal life stages, including the types of job roles and organisations we aspired to work for once children entered our lives. Interestingly, the male product managers in our office, all of whom are also parents, have weighed into our discussions saying that other than self-confidence, there really should be nothing stopping any primary caregiver from applying for product or marketing roles that match their experience and qualifications.

 

Product Managers who are the primary caregivers at home may not get round to baking cakes for our kids, exercising, further study, indulging in very many social events or contribute to society on a broader level by doing any volunteer work at this point in our lives, but there will certainly be a stage where we will be more rounded individuals again.

 

My observations of product and marketing professional peers during my career is that male counterparts are more aggressive in their job hunting, successfully obtaining the senior roles, higher remuneration and moving up the career ladder. Once most of the females step out to have babies they will take some time off and/or come back to the work-force in a part-time or set-up a sole trading business to work from home.

 

I respect all working parent’s choices but I also feel that there needs to be a shift on an individual and societal level to effectively leverage existing product management skills of new parents at a few levels:

  1. Individuals need to make a conscious effort to sustain their self-confidence levels while on extended parental leave so that they will continue to carry out and apply for new jobs that are commensurate with their skill level and previous experience.
  2. Employers need to lure back and retain experienced working mother to senior or leadership roles in product management by offering a combination of flexible work conditions and a work culture that accepts diversity.
  3. There needs to be more affordable childcare options and transport infrastructure that enables parents to minimise commuting time and stress-levels.

 

There are already a handful of female product management leaders in Australia who have managed stellar careers and families. I look forward to seeing more examples of other primary caregivers, male and female, join the ranks in the near future. There may be bumps along the way, but it’s up to us all to work collectively to pave the way to making it easier for product managers to lead fulfilling lives and continue on their career trajectories.