In Pragmatic Marketing’s latest annual Product Management and Marketing survey 39% of respondents were women. This percentage is actually much higher than the national average of women in tech, which according to National Center for Women and IT, is only 26%. As someone who has spent 25 years in tech, these numbers don’t strike me in a particularly profound way. Throughout my career, it seemed normal to be the only woman in a meeting, or sometimes in an entire department. Honestly, I just didn’t give it too much thought.
Recently, however, I’ve had more cause to reflect on the subject. Over the past year, when speaking at industry conferences or working with clients, I have been increasingly approached to share my thoughts on the subject. Quite frankly, it makes me a bit uncomfortable because I feel simply being a woman in technology doesn’t make me an expert on the subject. But, the conversation continues to find me, and so I decided that it might be time to take a deeper look.
What’s the Big Deal?
At first blush, as I mentioned, the statistics above don’t shock me. But, when juxtaposed with the fact that 57% of professional jobs in the US are held by women, the disparity suddenly came into focus. Why are women in tech about 30% behind the national average for all industries? And, honestly, does it really matter that women are underrepresented in this sector? I mean, if we are running a successful business, and it just happens to be the case that there are more men than women, does it matter?
The Business Case for Equity
Equity intuitively seems like a good idea, but as it turns out, it also makes great business sense. Statistics from the Peterson Institute for International Economics show that organizations where 30% of leaders are women see a 15% boost in profitability. Yet, according to Fortune, women held just 19.8% of the board seats in Fortune 1000 companies is 2017.
This perspective got me thinking more specifically about building great products that drive profitability. Product people always have their users in mind, that’s their raison d’etre. And they also understand that having a balanced perspective of the user community represented in their organizations drives successful business outcomes. Realistically, how can we build great products if we underrepresent half of the population within our own company?
Think about it: How many software companies build products that will be used exclusively by 39-year-old males (the average respondent in the survey I mentioned above)? It’s not terribly likely, especially when, according to Pew Research, women outnumber male users on the internet and on apps like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
Bias is Hurting Your Product
So if diverse teams make business sense, why aren’t we seeing it? The truth of the matter is this, we have bias, and more specifically, unconscious bias. Tech’s male-dominated past is perpetuating its present, and if we want to change that we need conscientious action.
In reality, this bias can hold us back from building great products. A recent study of GitHub open source software reveals how. By definition, open source code shouldn’t contain bias. Regardless of who wrote it, the best code should win. Right?
Well, researchers found that code written by women was accepted at a greater rate than men, 79% to 75% to be exact. But, that only held true when genders were masked. When revealed, the acceptance rate for code written by women suddenly dropped to 62.5%.
If we truly want to maximize profits and delight our customers, it seems logical that we would want to leverage the best talent, regardless of demographic composition. Shouldn’t we want the best code, regardless of who wrote it?
We spend a lot of time thinking about ways to gain a competitive edge to build better product: data analysis, A/B testing, investment in tools, the adoption of processes to drive velocity. But are we inadvertently overlooking one of the easiest ways to broaden the perspective for the products we are building by simply hiring a balanced workforce?
What Can I Do?
“What advice do you have you have for product leaders as it relates to women in tech?” I get asked this question all the time. I looked into some of this research because people were coming up to me, who I believe authentically care about gaining a wider field of vision, and I wanted to give educated answers.
Very often, small changes can be the best changes. I realize this article is just scratching the surface on a complex topic, but here are some quick ideas to help you leverage all of the available talent to drive success at your organization.
Research shows that women do not get equal time in group discussions until they comprise at least 60% of the group. To counteract that effect, make it a practice—during and at the end of each meeting—to pause, go around the table and make sure everyone is involved in the discussion. Successful businesses embrace hearing different people, voices and ideas; this isn’t just a gender issue. If you don’t proactively make room for that dialog to occur, you risk inhibiting the flow of ideas and information that can contribute to the success of your products and company.
Enter conversations with the understanding that, even if your approach isn’t perfect, you can still communicate good intentions. If something bothers you, speak up; and if someone else speaks up, try to listen and understand their perspective. Think about it like testing a product. You get excited when your customers provide feedback that will improve your products and, while that feedback may be hard to hear, you seek it out because it will drive better solutions. Professional experience has taught me that high-performing teams that engage in open, honest feedback build the best products.
Ditch the Profile
Often, when I am in a meeting when men swear, they will look at the women in the room and apologize for their language. I find this amusing, and curious. Do they think I don’t swear? Or is it that I haven’t heard swear words before? Would they issue the same apology if I weren’t in the room? Assuming this language is used to color the conversation and not be inflammatory, please don’t adjust it based on who is in the room. In other words, don’t single out a group of individuals and announce an adjustment to your language based on who is in attendance.
When we want to hire new talent, we often ask for recommendations from our existing talent. We may even provide referral bonuses for these recommendations. However, if you start from a homogeneous pool, this approach has severe limitations. “We don’t seem to get women applicants” might be because you don’t post your jobs on places like Hire Tech Ladies, Women in Product, and Power to Fly—expanding your recruiting pool will help build a more gender-representative workplace.
Years ago, in a company far far away, I was traveling with a colleague and the chief revenue officer. While waiting for our luggage, the CRO started guessing and commenting on the type of undergarments my colleague and I might be wearing, assigning personality attributes based on his guesses. I’ve thought about that experience often, and always the same thought: if he heard a colleague asking his grown son or daughter about their underwear in a professional setting, would he think that was okay? That has been my golden rule: If you wouldn’t want someone you love—regardless of gender—to be on the receiving end of a similar conversation, don’t have it.
We all want to build remarkable products that people love. I also believe that to be successful, we need to embrace all of the talent, ideas, and resources available to us—and here I only touched on gender diversity, which is but a small part of it. Perhaps by broaching this conversation, we can begin to tackle the issue in a way that allows us to change the dynamic and build a more diverse workforce. In doing so, we will more closely reflect the people who actually buy our products, which will enable us to build products they really love—isn’t that the ultimate goal?