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In Conversation with Elizabeth Ames, CEO of Women In Product

At a time when so many businesses are scrambling for top talent, it makes sense to expand hiring horizons. The best fit for your Product role may be waiting in an unexpected place.

Product roles are a relative newcomer to the business “mainstream.” Originally forged in Silicon Valley, Product Leaders came into being as a bridge between higher profile engineering teams and market demand. Today, their role stands on its own as the crucible of what’s possible and what’s viable. Business has recognized the Product function as vital to innovation and success in the marketplace. Product leadership roles are cropping up in every industry and Product talent is in hot demand. The position has emerged as a key voice in the C-suite.

Yet even as the star of Product leadership rises and companies compete for top talent, issues of diversity and inclusion linger. In today’s marketplace, women are deeply under-represented in Product leadership. We had the opportunity to sit down with Elizabeth Ames, CEO of Women In Product, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering women in product management and advocating for equal representation. Ames outlined the issues facing women in product leadership and the ways businesses can work to change the landscape and acquire top talent.

What was your career path and how did you come to lead Women in Product?

I have worked in Tech all of my career, beginning at Apple and then working at a variety of startup companies. I’ve held positions in product, marketing, strategy and general management roles. Tech is an exciting place to work, there are so many smart and capable people.

Over the time I began to notice that there were fewer and fewer women and particularly at the highest levels. In 2012, I got the opportunity to join Anitab.org, the organization that puts on The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing series. Although I had no non-profit experience, I was passionate about getting more women into tech. In 2019 I took on my current role as CEO of Women In Product. It has been a wonderful experience.

What inspired the formation of Women in Product?

In 2016, several women product leaders in the San Francisco Bay Area got together over dinner. Dinners led to other networking events and eventually to the first Women In Product conference. Three hundred women attended that first conference but 3,000 signed up! It was immediately clear that there was a larger need for community, connection and insight for women working in the field.

There are many very talented women product leaders out there who likely aren’t on your radar but you should make an effort to find them.

Why are women under-represented in product roles?

Women are currently underrepresented in product roles due to the move around the mid 2000’s to requiring a Computer Science or related degree (like Electrical Engineering) for Product Management roles. This change immediately restricted the number of women that would qualify to a trickle and put women already in the field, often at very senior levels, in jeopardy. For nearly 10 years, that was the standard and it blocked many women from pursuing the field.

In the early 2010’s several companies began to look at the actual correlation between a technical degree and performance as a PM. What many found was that there wasn’t a correlation that more and more people without Computer Science degrees were excellent PMs. Since around 2014 the CS degree requirement has diminished in importance or been eliminated, and we have seen a corresponding increase in the number of women seeking and in product roles. There is an excellent article on this history written by our co-founder and Board President, Deb Liu. You can find the article on LinkedIn here.

What are the key changes (positive or negative) for women in product leadership roles that your organization witnessed since its creation?

The key change that we have seen in the profession is the inclusion of product in the C-suite. More and more companies are hiring Chief Product Officers, and boards now see product experience as valuable and seek out board members with product backgrounds. Because women were generally blocked from the field for many years due to the CS degree requirement, they are playing a bit of catch up to get tapped for these most senior opportunities. That is one of our key challenges: To make these fantastic women product leaders more visible so that they are in the consideration loop for these opportunities.

One of our key challenges is to make these fantastic women product leaders more visible so that they are in the consideration loop for these opportunities.

If you could tell companies seeking to hire product leaders three things – what would they be?

1. Keep your job requirements broad.

There are many women who bring unique backgrounds to product. They may have studied non-traditional subjects or entered the field in non-traditional ways but they bring strong customer empathy and see things differently. Don’t demand a CS degree without testing whether it correlates with success and is needed.

2. Seek out women candidates.

There are many very talented women product leaders out there who likely aren’t on your radar but you should make an effort to find them. Women, especially in the current COVID-19 environment, may be inclined to keep their heads down and just do great work. We know women aren’t likely to apply for a job unless they meet 100% of the requirements, versus men who will apply if they meet 50%. There are highly qualified women who aren’t necessarily raising their hands. Go find them. You won’t regret it.

3. Take a good hard look at the diversity of your staff.

If they all look the same, come from the same schools, or have come through internal references, you need to diversify. Diversity is important when it comes to fostering innovation and addressing complex problems. As outlined in Scott Page’s book “The Diversity Bonus,” people who think differently than you add a lot of value. Take advantage of that bonus.

At a time when so many businesses are scrambling for top talent, it makes sense to expand hiring horizons. The best fit for your Product role may be waiting in an unexpected place. Broadening expectations may lead to candidates who bring new ideas and new perspectives to the function.

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