More women in product roles would be a coup for our society and economy

By Leah Rankin*
Monday, 03 June, 2024

More women in product roles would be a coup for our society and economy

Gender diversity within all sectors continues to be a point of scrutiny and discussion, but often lacks accompanying action to change the status quo. The scrutiny is especially real within the STEM sector, and rightly so. In 2022, data from the Australian Department of Industry, Science and Resources showed that only 23% of senior management and 8% of CEOs in STEM-qualified industries were women, and the pay gap between men’s and women’s pay in STEM industries was $27,012 — or, 17%. This is a rather pitiable state to be in and yet too few are discussing the impact of this on business, societal and economical outcomes.

The truth is, more women in product roles represents a coup not only for individual businesses, but for society and the economy.

True product innovation doesn’t occur in an echo chamber of similar people. It must be the result of diverse perspectives and experiences in order to have a real chance at success. This is never more so the case when we begin to unpack the implications of AI in product. If homogenous teams are building AI, inputting the original datasets from which the AI can then learn from, the results will perpetuate in-built biases within the AI that can have damaging effects on society at large. It is only through diverse teams that we can truly trust and enhance the effectiveness of AI, which is set to increasingly permeate product strategies over the coming years.

On an economic level, a gender diverse team is a financially viable team. A recent study by McKinsey and Co found companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile.

I’ve been in the technology industry for more than 20 years. And while we have seen more gender diversity in product teams over that time, statistics show these teams are still overwhelmingly male (in the US, a survey by ProductPlan shows men outnumber women almost 2:1 in product management). This said, at SiteMinder I am very proud to lead a product team that is 45% female across product management, product design and product marketing. We are also 30% female at the executive level, where I sit as Chief Product Officer. While there is much more we can do, I believe this puts SiteMinder in a strong position to not only attract and grow talent that recognises the value of diverse teams but, most importantly, build innovative solutions that provide great experiences for our diverse customer base.

Keeping women in product teams is just as critical as attracting them

Companies that prioritise gender diversity in their product development teams are more attractive to top talent. Existing employees are also more likely to feel valued and supported in an inclusive work environment, leading to higher levels of job satisfaction and retention.

I’m a big fan of Servant Leadership, and the first quality of a servant leader is they ‘value diverse opinions’. Gender is one of the first diversity attributes that can and should be addressed as part of welcoming and integrating diverse thinking in product.

The next generation of women entering the workforce will be even more attuned to expectations of gender diversity in teams, so it’s important to lay the groundwork now. Younger employees increasingly see diversity and inclusion as non-negotiable. In fact, they’re likely to choose where to work based on these principles.

Addressing the motherhood penalty

If we want a hope of attracting and retaining more women in product roles, there needs to be an executive consensus on eliminating all traces of the ‘motherhood penalty’ — the phenomenon of the perceived or real negative impact that motherhood can have on a woman’s career advancement, earnings capacity and overall professional opportunities.

There are several practical things a company can do to break down this damaging narrative. Addressing the motherhood penalty requires systemic changes, including the implementation of family-friendly workplace policies, including options to work flexibly. Efforts to challenge gender stereotypes and biases in hiring, promotion and performance evaluations are also essential to creating a more equitable work environment for mothers.

Finally, ongoing training can and should be offered across the board to boost and sustain gender diversity in product teams. This includes a recognition across all departments, and from an executive level downwards, that all skills are valuable when it comes to building product teams — not just pure technical skills. Indeed, the very best product teams are crafted using not only a diversity of thought and gender but a diversity of experience, too.

People frequently transition into product roles from any number of other roles such as marketing, sales, IT or even operations. Providing and encouraging internal opportunities for reskilling or cross-departmental secondments is an excellent way to boost gender diversity from within, in any cases where external hiring is proving challenging.

The most successful businesses are product-led, not sales-led

More and more frequently, businesses are waking up to the reality that their success is tied more directly to being product-led, rather than sales-led. And, diverse thinking in product development and product management teams is one of the cornerstones to iterating existing products and innovating new ones. Too often, businesses start with trying to innovate first, followed by finding a market fit and honing in on a target customer for their innovative product. It should be the other way around.

Having more women on the product team will not only accommodate and accelerate a greater diversity of thinking, fuelling innovation; it will also contribute to the important focus on being product-led, and make having quality, workable products the highest priority in the organisation.

*Leah Rankin is Chief Product Officer at SiteMinder and is a seasoned executive with a passion for people, technology and delivering customer-driven products to market, with a focus on digital, global and scalable solutions. Over the past 20 years, Leah has gained local and international experience across the telecommunications, travel and technology industries, holding numerous product and engineering leadership roles at Vodafone, Wotif Group (now Expedia) and Community Engine.

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