If you find yourself at a great company, in a challenging role but yet still unsure of how to really breakthrough to shine as a woman in tech, don’t worry, you’re not lost. Many of us feel this way at one point or another in our careers, stuck at the crossroads and unsure of which way to go. However, now more than ever there are resources to help you craft an inspired action plan for your career.
Facebook Marketplace VP Deborah Liu and Facebook’s Head of Video Fidji Simo can absolutely relate to feeling stuck and “not seeing a path to the top jobs.” This is why they co-founded “Women in Product.” It wasn’t enough to be badass women at Facebook, they wanted to support product managers beyond the company’s walls. Their goal was simple: to build a community where women PMs could support one another and thrive together.
On the eve of their annual conference “Women in Product 2018: Breakthrough,” we caught up with Liu and Simo to talk all things tech, career advice and how they are shaping future female executives.
Glassdoor: What inspired you two to form Women in Product?
Fidji Simo: Deb and I started hosting dinners for senior women in product to get to know one another about six years ago. During those dinners we realized that there was no community for women in product to meet, exchange ideas and find support, like Grace Hopper has for engineering. Since being a product manager (PM) is fundamentally about solving the problems you see in the world, we decided to fix this problem and create the Women in Product (WIP) organization, as well as the annual conference to make this community come to life every year.
Deborah Liu: This community was built to be a place women PMs could support one another. Product managers are creators and builders, and we want to encourage more women to enter the field, grow, and thrive in their professions.
Glassdoor: The theme of this year’s Women in Product conference is “breakthrough.” Can you elaborate on what the theme stands for and why you chose it?
Fidji Simo: One of the issues we’ve heard from a lot of women in the last year is feeling stuck and not seeing a path to the top jobs. With our conference this year, we want to inspire them to look for these breakthroughs in their careers and get them past the current blockers they may feel. Additionally, Women in Product is fundamentally about women who innovate and invent the products of the future, so the breakthrough theme applies both to our careers as well as the products we want to launch into the world.
Deborah Liu: We want women PMs to be able to see themselves as leaders and to breakthrough impostor syndrome and stereotypes. So often they feel the weight of being a woman in a male-dominated field to be hard. It is important that diverse voices are leading the way in building the next generation of products for the world.
Glassdoor: What career question do you hear most often from women in tech, and how do you answer it?
Deborah Liu: Many women ask me how they can overcome impostor syndrome. I have fought it my whole career, and I decided long ago that I would be an expert in learning instead. Building great products is often not about having the most experience, but rather being the most willing to test, iterate, and adapt. Learn to learn better than anyone else.
Fidji Simo: Most women ask me about how to lead and be respected in a male-dominated culture, so that they can get the same opportunities as their male counterparts. While there is no easy answer, I advise them not to try to emulate the style of their male colleagues, and instead find their own style that is aligned with their own core values. Many women have to figure out how to walk the line between feedback that they’re not opinionated enough versus feedback that they’re too aggressive (both often given to the same person!), and the key here is for women to understand that they have the right to be strong and firm and not apologize for it, as long as they show care for their coworkers as everyone is supposed to do.
Don’t hold back. Many times the thing most standing in your way is your lack of confidence. —Deborah Liu
Glassdoor: What advice do you have for women product managers who want to step into leadership roles?
Fidji Simo: “Go for it!” A lot of times these women need to internalize that they are already operating at that level, and just need to take the step and actually embrace their seniority. Imposter syndrome is real, and women need to actively look for a network of supporters and peers to help them see more accurately their own strengths, and give them confidence that they have a right to their ambitions.
Deborah Liu: Don’t hold back. Often women feel like they have to know everything to take on a role, and instead of putting their hat in the ring they tell themselves they are not qualified. Instead, value the strengths you bring to the table, and what you lack, seek feedback and learn. Many times the thing most standing in your way is your lack of confidence.
Glassdoor: What advice do you have for employers on creating inclusive workplace cultures for women product managers?
Fidji Simo: Trainings on inclusion and biases are key to even start the dialog and help people realize what the lived experience of women in the workplace is, especially in technical functions. That’s how people can become more aware of the issues and turn into allies. It all starts with the small gestures every day: making sure women can finish their sentences, calling out when someone is appropriating a woman’s idea and giving her the credit back, etc. As more people become aware of the issues, these ally behaviors become natural and drastically improve the work environment for women. Finally, we need more people in leadership positions — obviously senior women, but also men — to actively spend time with women and sponsor them. Deb has a great view of the difference between mentoring and sponsoring.
Deborah Liu: Women have mentors and men have sponsors. Mentors give advice, and sponsors open doors. Employers should actively ensure that women product managers have sponsors, senior people who are willing to open doors for the next generation of leaders. Women bring another perspective to the table; having someone sponsor them, and when needed, amplify their ideas, helps. I spent years advocating to build Marketplace, Facebook’s commerce product. I saw how mom groups were using Facebook to connect with one other, and eventually, they found a place to buy and sell from each other. I could see how our service could be a place for community-based commerce. But many people around me couldn’t see it. It took a sponsor to champion my cause to get support, and now more than 1 in 3 people on Facebook in the US use Marketplace each month.
Glassdoor: How has Facebook created an inclusive and encouraging environment for women in product? What work do you still want to do within Facebook in this area?
Deborah Liu: One of the things we found early on at Facebook was that the technical degree requirement was limiting the hiring of more women PMs. After all, only 18% of Computer Science and Engineering degrees are earned by women. We actively removed the requirement, and we went further to remove the technical interview. We found that the quality of our PMs went up as we opened up the pool of prospective candidates. We went on to create a Rotational Product Manager Program to bring in people without any previous PM experience. Each of these changes required us being willing to question the assumptions we made about our hiring and to try new things. Hiring is just one part of the equation. Retention and advancement are equally important. Many of the women PM leaders at Facebook mentor and sponsor the women PMs at the company to ensure they are supported and growing. We want to build the next generation of women leaders, and that is why we started the PM dinners six years ago and ultimately why we created the WIP organization.
Fidji Simo: We need more women in senior product leadership roles. As we grow the next generation of women leaders, Deb and I are investing a lot of time in making sure that these promising women see a clear path and feel supported along the way.
Imposter syndrome is real, and women need to actively look for a network of supporters and peers to help them see more accurately their own strengths, and give them confidence that they have a right to their ambitions. —Fidji Simo
Glassdoor: How would you describe the company culture for women at Facebook?
Fidji Simo: What’s key is that there is one company culture that everyone feels a part of — not a company culture for women specifically. Facebook encourages builders — and we built WIP because we believe that women are exceptional at building the products of the future. That being said, Sheryl Sandberg’s fight for equality has certainly had a deep influence on our culture. It has educated a lot of people, earlier than in many other companies, about the challenges women and the importance of diverse teams.
Glassdoor: Both of you are mothers and encourage girls pursuing STEM. What should we be doing to create a different culture around STEM and tech for women/girls and make these fields more welcoming for them?
Deborah Liu: My daughter, Bethany, was interested in taking a coding class when she was 7. Since she was on the younger side, so the instructor asked me to bring her in so he could test her skills. After he worked with her for a bit, he confirmed she could start, but said, “By the way, if she wants to be with other girls you should enroll her in our weekend class where we have a couple. We don’t have any girls coming during the week.” I was shocked that a coding school in Palo Alto had nearly no girls participating. Our culture tells girls that coding is something that boys do. Girls are hearing and internalizing that message even at age 7, and they are deciding coding is not for them. This story plays out all over the world. We are subtly telling our daughters that tech is not for them. We need to make STEM more accessible and engaging for girls. If they feel like it is built for boys, they are less likely to feel comfortable pursuing it.
Glassdoor: A recent article by Quartz stated that “all career advice for women is gaslighting,” arguing that advice meant to empower women in the workplace is misleading and placing the burden on individuals to fix gender inequality in professional spheres instead of on their employers. How do we balance providing guidance to women on navigating their careers and holding employers accountable for discriminatory workplace cultures?
Fidji Simo: It’s an obvious answer but we need to do both. We need to push employers to take this seriously; even for the ones who do, it take years to make a real difference — it’s a ground game. Meanwhile, we have an entire generation of women in tech who need help navigating all the situations that come up every day. That’s why we created WIP: we want women to have a community they can rely on to help them work through these issues, create opportunities and give a sense of support. I would worry that placing the burden only on employers puts women in a victim position instead of in the driver seat of improving their own situations. We can do a lot to advance our careers, solve issues with sexism, and to help lift other women along the way.
Deborah Liu: It is not one or the other. We need to change companies, but we also need to change ourselves. We want women to seek out those stretch assignments, but we also need companies to give them the opportunities. I have sponsored many women over the years, and many of them struggle with confidence and turn down stretch roles because they fear they are not ready. Women making changes without companies changing doesn’t work, but companies changing without women being willing to make the leap is equally important.
Glassdoor: Lastly, what is one leadership mistake that each of you have made (separately) that you have learned the most from? How has that one moment informed the way you lead now?
Deborah Liu: Not finding my voice sooner. I really struggled with speaking up, especially as an Asian American woman. My immigrant parents taught me not to stand out too much, but instead to work hard and let my work stand for itself. I’m fairly introverted, so this worked for me until it didn’t. American culture rewards those who make themselves heard. I took a class in business school on organizational behavior where the final exam asked, “What will you change as a result of being in this class?” I hesitated for a moment and then wrote, “I will be an extrovert at work.” That is when I started to convey my true voice in the workplace. People want to know the real you. It is hard to build trust with others when you are holding back. Being vulnerable and authentic are qualities I continue to strive for in my life.
Fidji Simo: Being overly focused on pleasing everyone. Earlier in my career I was so obsessed with people liking me that I was sacrificing my strong convictions just to make sure everyone loved working with me. I remember vividly telling my manager that I didn’t push back hard enough on something because it would’ve upset some people, and his advice was: “you shouldn’t strive to be liked; you should strive to be respected.” It stuck with me and while I obviously still place a lot of value on people enjoying working with me (you don’t get respect any other way!), it doesn’t come at the expense of speaking my truth anymore. Every day I have to make hard decisions on entirely new products where the right answer is all but obvious, so being comfortable with not pleasing everyone for the sake of setting a clear direction is absolutely key.