Hear the Ceiling Shatter


a close up of a broken glass window

Photo : Umberto on Unsplash

Product management is a critical nexus point between technology, business, and user experience. Yet, for women, the path to entering and thriving in this field often comes with additional hurdles—especially in STEM industries. Implicit bias and underrepresentation in leadership are just a few of the multifaceted barriers women face. But despite these challenges, progress is possible.

And it is happening. Women constitute 34.7% of the workforce as product managers, while men make up 65.3% of those in product management roles. Still obviously skewed—but compared to past numbers, it is at least some progress.

But not enough. How can women break through the glass ceiling of product management? It's hard enough, but combine that with the underrepresentation of women in STEM, and it's still an epidemic.

Understanding the Barriers

• Stereotypical Mindsets: A prevailing stereotype is that women may not possess the assertive leadership style or technical expertise often (misguidedly) attributed to successful product managers. Such stereotypes can lead to unconscious bias during hiring and promotions.

• Network Gaps: Networking plays a critical role in career advancement. Women often face a 'network gap' due to a lack of representation in senior roles, which can limit their access to mentors, sponsors, and opportunities.

Work-Life Balance: The demanding nature of product management roles can sometimes be at odds with societal expectations placed on women regarding family and caregiving responsibilities.

Changing the Narrative

To address these challenges, both systemic changes within organizations and individual empowerment are necessary:

• Inclusive Hiring Practices: Companies need to actively work on inclusive hiring practices that value diverse perspectives and backgrounds. This includes structured interviews, diverse hiring panels, and gender-neutral job descriptions.

• Mentorship and Sponsorship Programs: Developing programs that connect women with mentors and sponsors can help bridge the network gap and provide the guidance and advocacy needed to advance in their careers.

• Flexibility and Support: Creating a work environment that supports work-life balance with flexible work arrangements can help retain women in product management roles and allow them to thrive without sacrificing personal commitments.

• Visibility of Role Models: Highlighting successful women product managers through media, speaking engagements, and within the organization can inspire and encourage women aspiring to enter the field.

Celebrating Progress

Recent strides in educational outreach have significantly bolstered support for girls in STEM, with initiatives such as Girls Who Code, UNESCO's STEM and Gender Advancement (SAGA), and the Society of Women Engineers playing pivotal roles. These programs are dedicated to sparking and nurturing an early interest in STEM among young women, with the goal of laying a robust groundwork for a lifelong engagement with science and technology.

Concurrently, there has been a conscious shift in policy and corporate ethos towards valuing diversity and fostering more inclusive work cultures. Organizations are implementing and championing policies for gender equality, including equal pay, transparent promotion paths, and stringent anti-discrimination measures. Women's representation in STEM is on the rise, especially in life sciences, although other areas like engineering and computing are witnessing slower improvement.

The research sector is increasingly turning its lens towards gender disparities, generating data that not only tracks advances but also highlights ongoing struggles, thus empowering policy development and advocacy efforts. Moreover, the digital revolution is playing a critical role in democratizing access to knowledge, enabling women in STEM to create global networks, share knowledge, and build a collective sense of community and empowerment through social media and other online platforms.

Promoting Women in Product Management

• Cultivate Technical and Business Acumen: Deepen your understanding of the technical aspects as well as the business side of product development. This dual competence can make you an invaluable asset to any product team.

• Develop a Thick Skin: Resilience is key. Be prepared to face and overcome biases and setbacks. It's not about not having moments of doubt; it's about how you recover from them. While women shouldn't have to deal with office snubs and promotion passovers, it's going to happen. The key is not to give up, and a thick skin will help.

• Communication Is King: Excellent communication skills can bridge the gap between different stakeholders. Whether it's articulating user needs to engineers or presenting product strategies to executives, clear and confident communication will be your superpower.

• Be Assertive: Assertiveness is often mistaken for aggressiveness, especially in women. However, assertiveness is about clear, respectful communication of your ideas and boundaries. It's a vital skill for anyone in product management.

• Embrace Leadership Opportunities: Look for opportunities to lead, whether it's a small project or a team meeting. These experiences build leadership skills and increase your visibility within an organization.

• Stay Informed and Ahead: The tech industry moves at a breakneck pace. Keeping abreast of the latest trends, technologies, and methodologies is crucial. Continuous learning will keep you relevant and prepared for future opportunities.

• Network Intentionally: Actively build your professional network. Attend industry events, engage in online forums, and don't hesitate to reach out to others in the field. Remember, networks are not just about what you can get but also what you can give.

• Highlight Your Unique Perspective: Diversity of thought leads to better products. Embrace your unique viewpoint and experiences; they can lead to innovative solutions that others might overlook.

Shattering the Glass Ceiling

The journey for women into the product management echelons within STEM is fraught with challenges, but these are not insurmountable. It requires a concerted effort by both the individuals striving to break through and the organizations that stand to benefit immensely from their contributions. Women in product management bring unique insights, drive innovation, and steer products to success with their distinct perspectives.

As we work towards a more equitable professional landscape, it's crucial for aspiring women in product management to not only arm themselves with the necessary skills and knowledge but also to lean into their strengths and unique attributes. The industry must reciprocate by dismantling barriers and fostering an environment where women's contributions in product management are recognized, valued, and nurtured.

For those looking to venture into this field, here's the key message: your talent, skills, and perspective are needed more than ever. As you prepare to take your place at the table, know that each challenge overcome is a step towards a more diverse and dynamic future in STEM product management.

Soundarya Chandar
(Photo : Soundarya Chandar)

About Soundarya Chandar

Soundarya Chandar is a visionary leader in the tech industry, currently enhancing the commercial landscape of Instagram for Meta Inc. by leading initiatives that significantly boost revenue for small and medium-sized businesses. Her exceptional tenure in product management includes a transformative role at Yelp Inc., where her strategic direction over the restaurant marketplace and the inception of Yelp Waitlist Kiosk propelled the company to new heights. With a foundation in Computer Science from PESIT, Bangalore, and advanced training with a Master's from Carnegie Mellon University, Soundarya combines technical expertise with strategic acumen. A proponent of diversity and women's advancement in tech, she dedicates herself to mentorship, sharing her rich experience to cultivate emerging talent in STEM and guiding tech professionals and entrepreneurs in realizing their potential. 

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