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The first female product manager at Google built a nonprofit to combat the sexism in tech

Women make up only 26% of the tech workforce, and in product management that number drops to 5%. So Nancy Wang cofounded a nonprofit to help women change the ratio.

The first female product manager at Google built a nonprofit to combat the sexism in tech
Nancy Wang [Photo: Elisa Cicinelli Photography, courtesy of AWIP]

Nancy Wang remembers sitting down in a vendor meeting. “There were 12 middle-aged men of a very similar demographic and me.” Ten minutes after the meeting was supposed to start, she spoke up to ask what the holdup was. “It is because your boss isn’t here,” she recalls one of the men saying.

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The thing is, as the first, youngest, and only female product manager at Google Fiber between 2014 and 2016, she was the boss. “I am the person making the decisions,” she said as she reminded him that a multi-million-dollar deal was in the balance. The vendor in question was taken aback by this information.

For Wang, however, this treatment was all too familiar. Over the course of nearly a decade of work experience in infrastructure product management and engineering, Wang has witnessed firsthand how few women there are in tech. In her current role as lead product manager for the startup Rubrik, she was also the first female to be hired into that role.

The lack of women tech mentors

According to the National Center for Women in Technology, women make up only 26% of the tech workforce, and Wang adds that in product management that number drops to 5%. She recalls one female tech leader pointing out that while that number may be growing (albeit slowly), adding three women to a marketing team at a tech company isn’t the same as increasing the number of women in actual technical roles. “We need to find ways to address that,” she asserts.

And she’s seen that companies aren’t stepping up. In fact, thousands of staff at her former employer staged a walkout on November 1 to protest Google’s policies on sexual harassment following reports that male executives accused of sexual misconduct were given multi-million-dollar exit packages for years.

“On one hand Google does well with support groups,” Wang points out, but at the same time, there’s a distinct lack of female role models. Wang says that holding up Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg as examples of female leadership is great, “but not very accessible to mid-level project managers.”

Wang says accessibility is crucial to mentorship as well as to see evidence of representation in roles you can aspire to reach. “I was fortunate that the director of product and the director of engineering were both very supportive,” she recalls, and they promoted her in her first year. But the fact that she had to rely on male mentors who couldn’t understand a woman’s challenges in the space wasn’t helpful. And her only female mentor was on the business side–not in a tech role. So when Wang had a question about how to best motivate engineers, her female mentor wasn’t equipped to answer. “It’s hard to empathize with someone not in the same career role,” she explains.

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Filling in the Gaps

Wang’s had to figure out strategies on her own. Right now at Rubrik, there is less female representation than there was even at Google. As a result of collaborating with so many men who aren’t accustomed to working with women, she’s had to be extremely thorough in preparation for presenting ideas so they don’t get dismissed out of hand. Not only does she come armed with data points, says Wang, but she records testimonials from customers asking for a specific feature. “This is all the supporting facts I present before I even advance my idea,” she says.

Admitting that even with a rock-solid format like that, not all of her ideas have come to fruition, but she does say that through putting some of these tactical strategies in her own proposals at Rubrik, she’s been able to lead a significant portion of the company’s P&L and annual revenue for product lines for this year as well as those coming out in 2019.

Sharing her hard-won knowledge with others was the incentive to start Advancing Women in Product (AWIP), a tech networking and mentoring organization. Wang says that the events the AWIP sponsors are designed to provide the kind of mentorship to women that is lacking in the sector.

For example, there was a workshop on how to get executive buy-in when presenting to a manager or at a board meeting. The goal was not only how to present ideas but how to put them forth in a way that they are advanced and championed. This also tackled how best to respond to pushback as a woman, “because society paints this picture that we are softer and more malleable oftentimes that we can be taken advantage of,” says Wang.

AWIP provides tactical training and advice when encountering those who might discount their ideas out of hand. Another panel dealt with expanding your sphere of influence when vying for promotions at different levels.The need was evident in the fact that membership is now in excess of 3,000 with its largest contingent in the Bay Area, but also across the U.S., North America, Europe, and Asia. And part of their mission statement is equality, so AWIP has a number of male ambassadors and was recently actively recruiting for its Seattle team.

As she told Built in Seattle, “We try to keep an even ratio of 50% women and 50% men because men, in my opinion, are an essential part of the conversation. We’re talking about diversity in boardrooms, and 100% women isn’t the right answer either.”

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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