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Women in Product: The Secret Agile Weapon

Written by
Aamna Hussain Aamna Hussain
Product Manager and Podcaster
Published
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I’ve Googled ‘Agility’ a few times over the years to try and see if I still have ‘it’. Everytime a list of relatable characteristics comes up in the search results, I’m reassured of my understanding. And everytime, I can’t help but think of one thing; “wow, this sounds like every woman I know”.

Let’s go through a mixture of examples of what Google and I have come up with:

  • “Ability to adapt to change well”
  • “Remain calm when faced with difficulty”
  • “Being flexible”
  • “Displaying continuous improvement”
  • Hitting home yet?

Let’s dive further but before I do, I want to make it clear that I don’t think Agility can only be achieved by women. Nor is this a comparison of ‘who does it better’ between the genders. Rather, this piece is about exploring why Agile comes naturally to women, as well as the skillset it encompasses.

Firstly, let’s explore what Agile means to companies and its relevance to the Product world.

Companies seem to love Agile. It’s been a buzzword for almost a decade, maybe more. And for good reason. It’s all about what it represents; the permission to change, and make changes relatively quickly. Particularly more established and mature companies will have traditional ways of working. Before Agile, we generally accepted them to apply methodologies that are quite linear and riddled with a lot of bureaucracy. Of course, bureaucracy still exists but this new permission to challenge the SLT or the C-Suite and guide them from the ground up has proven in many cases, a better way of getting things done.

"Product is all about people; both people in an organisation and your customers"

Product Manager and Podcaster

And this is why Agile frameworks are the most popular and successful when it comes to Product functions. Product is all about people; both people in an organisation and your customers. Remember, we make products to fit user needs, not the other way round. Therefore, products will need to be iterated until it’s right for the customer, or evolve alongside the customer’s needs over time. A great example that comes to mind is the downfall of the Blackberry phone (Remember BBMs?!). The company, once in direct competition with Apple and Google, didn’t react quick enough to building better customer experiences, whilst the others did. This is where an Agile framework such as Scrum comes in to allow us to work in a way where we can adapt our product, in beautifully defined iterations. It allows us to try something new in a defined timeline and measure the results. It allows us to accept our failings and try again. So we come back to this idea of change and also the fact that successful Product Management lies in adopting a mindset. A mindset akin to some familiar traits in women.

When it comes to calling out general feminine strengths, there are many. But I want to focus on my top 3, which I feel resonate most closely with successful Product Management and Leadership.

Empathy

This is purposefully the first and in my opinion, the most important trait I want to call out for a few reasons. Leading with and displaying empathy is a relatively new strength that’s being accepted and applied in the workplace. Particularly after Covid, where the playing field was levelled in so many ways and we all had to look out for each other. Empathy leads to care, a characteristic that I believe to be synonymous with women.

Displaying deep empathy in Product is crucial. This level of care translates to wanting to know what customers really need. It also breeds strong and genuine relationships amongst team members and stakeholders. People connect more with you when they know you care, and not so much when they know you need the job done. Regarding applying empathy to a leadership role - well, it’s pretty obvious, right? In fact, the first time I paid attention to the fact that we need more female leaders was when my male Head of Product pointed it out to me. He said in his experience, he noticed female leaders show they care about their people effortlessly. In comparison, it’s something he’s had to do quite consciously.

Intuition

If there’s anything I’ve learnt over the years about myself is I do well whenever I listen to that little voice in my head, and the opposite scenario is also true. There is science behind it, which I won’t bore you with. But the important thing to remember here is, intuition is made up of a lifetime of experience. I, for example, use mine as an indicator of how comfortable I am taking a risk, which is based on my experiences. And in Product, you’ve gotta take on a lot of risk. Whether it’s deciding priorities based on little or ambiguous data or even in cases where there is too much data (yes, data paralysis is a thing!). In leadership, this can be the difference of building the right team or not.

Vulnerability

I know, I know, this certainly sounds like the weakest trait compared to the two above. But in my opinion, this one is the game changer when it comes to Product and is a woman’s superpower. Here’s why. Vulnerability suggests you cannot do something on your own, which I think we can all agree is the case in Product. Therefore, succumbing to vulnerability means letting go of your ego and prioritising correctly. It means accepting your mistakes and being curious to learn by asking questions. It means asking for help, which is also very important in setting an example for your team. Before you know it, you’ve created a culture where honesty becomes the currency for great teamwork and eventually great products!

But hey, don’t take my word for it. I’d like to share some case studies that have stood out to me and exemplify all the traits discussed.

Case study 1: Empathy

Whitney Wolfe - Founder of Bumble

After a dramatic exit from Tinder as the co-founder, Whitney knew she had to do things differently. She identified her problem statement and realised something. There were no dating apps built for women. She found an overwhelming amount of women being harassed on online dating apps and wanted to change this. Thus, being laser-focussed on her mission and led by her empathy for women needing a safe space to date, she founded Bumble. Today, the app directly competes with Tinder, has 58 million active users worldwide and generated $694 million revenue in 2022. Whitney’s story is key to understanding how powerful and impactful empathy is in the Product world. The numbers speak for themselves.

Case study 2: Vulnerability

Emma - Product Owner, mum of 2

Emma is a dear colleague of mine, who I admire mostly for her vulnerability. I met her at a crucial point of her career; when she returned from maternity leave. Having done so, she was assigned a new product, re-assigned to another a few months later and had to demonstrate continuous improvement and value with a new team. All this whilst working a 4-day week due to her childcare commitments. But she made it look like a breeze and achieved her goals week in, week out! I’m taking monthly releases of a product the company had never used before. The key to Emma’s success? Her curiosity to learn. I observed her spending a big chunk of her day just asking questions for weeks. By the end, she knew her product inside out. Her work ethic is proof that vulnerability can be THE thing to lead to success.

Case study 3: Intuition

Katie Cummins - VP of Product at Deliveroo

Speaking at Product Con 2022 in London, Katie shared her team’s positive experience of following intuition. Her team investigated an anecdote from a customer that was uncovered during a primary research session. Although the anecdote hadn’t shown up specifically in any of their data yet, the team kept it on their radar and jumped on it as soon as their reports showed signs of abnormality. The issue: customers weren’t getting the same search results after they had moved to a new tower block slightly further away from the city, where more food options were available. A huge problem for a company of its nature, as you can imagine. But intuition meant the team anticipated this thus were able to solve this problem in just weeks. It’s worth noting, that although Katie herself didn’t work on this problem, the example and culture she’s set as VP of Product who openly values intuition, counts as a huge contribution. Data is important, yes, but intuition was the winner here.

Despite all these powerful examples though, women represent just 32.1% of the Product Management workforce (Source: Product School survey, Jan 2023).

So if women are naturally Agile and Agile is so sought after, why is there such an imbalance in numbers?

There are a few reasons:

Biases still exist

Many studies suggest that unfortunately, due to the barriers women face, whether it be a pay gap, lack of on-the-job training or getting back into work after maternity leave, women aren’t given the same opportunity as men.

Women don’t have enough role models

A typical case of seeing is believing. Not having enough women in Product positions has a domino effect of not attracting them as talent.

Women simply don’t apply to the roles.

I’ve spoken to multiple recruiters who have told me they want to put more women forward for Product roles, particularly senior positions. But they just don’t apply to them. Certainly not at the same rate as men. They have also told me that this is the biggest factor when it comes to the gender gap in Product.

Often when it comes to performing well in the workplace, women are told what they lack. I know because I’ve been there! And in response, I hope this piece makes it abundantly clear of how female traits couldn’t align more with being Agile in the Product world.

It’s time women start playing into their natural strengths and realise, being a woman in Product requires skills we ALREADY have. It’s time to own those strengths and turn up being your authentic self.

I don’t Google ‘Agile’ anymore because I am ‘it’. And to the Woman in Product reading this: I bet you are too.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aamna Hussain

Aamna Hussain
Product Manager and Podcaster

Aamna is fuelled by her passion for creating value through digital products. Her journey is marked by a commitment to crafting exceptional user experiences, as evident in her successful launch of the UK's pioneering Islamic digital bank, Nomo, catering to an international audience. Additionally, she played a pivotal role in driving Digital Transformation at BT/EE, where she led the establishment of the first scrum squads.

Aamna also runs a podcast, where she sheds light on the remarkable stories of those who serve as inspirations in the world of Product. You can tune in here: Podcast Link.

Furthermore, Aamna takes pride in giving back as a thoughtful mentor to those she meets along her journey.

As a Woman in Product, Aamna is passionate about women growing their confidence in the tech world hence runs retreats for women.

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