Ask Women in Product: I’m ‘too aggressive’ or I get stuck with all the ‘admin’ work. What’s the best way to handle this?

Q1: As a woman who has been labeled as aggressive in the past for taking actions that seem commonplace or acceptable for men, what is the best way to combat this labeling going forward? Q2: I get stuck with all the ‘admin’ work. What’s the best way to handle this?

Answer from Sonali Kothari, COO at Kiva.org, Entrepreneur-in-Residence, JFFLabs

Image by Adam Farmer. Concept by Sonali Kothari

What is your impression of the PM when you see that he is critical of the stakeholder’s idea? Does your perception change as the conversation continues? Now imagine the same situation but with a woman PM and a male stakeholder. Does your perception of either of the individuals change?

It’s Not You

Image by Adam Farmer

Someone who doesn’t jump in to get things done might be called passive. But does that behavior include those times when you don’t volunteer to take meeting notes or set up a room for a meeting?

Someone who pushes a decision forward without consulting others might be called aggressive. But does that include those times when you are asked to rapidly drive and implement an executive team decision?

Consider these questions: Did you have to make a controversial decision? Did you set up a meeting for the specific purpose of compelling others to hear each other while you took a back seat? Did you voice an unpopular opinion? Were you both a meeting facilitator and a decision-maker? Did you give a colleague some critical feedback?

You can see how the roles and responsibilities of Product Managers can be fertile ground for having to face these characterizations.

I’ve found it’s a complicated, common, and often emotional dynamic, especially when a female product manager faces a dozen stakeholders and must act from a position of authority. And while I don’t think this challenge is exclusive to women, it is more pronounced when the PM is a woman, so these are the best case studies from which we can all learn.

Labeling is unproductive, even if the intent is to help someone improve their approach or collaboration style.

Guiding Principles for Dealing with Labels

Below are the guiding principles that have proved helpful when I’ve reflected on this challenge with other leaders and PMs.

  1. Use the situation to grow and practice being assertive. No matter how the particular circumstance resolves itself, you can turn it into an opportunity to learn. Don’t be discouraged to the point of inaction. Some skills, like leading without authority, are honed daily in a PM role. These situations, in part due to their level of difficulty, present a particularly good opportunity to master speaking up for yourself, active listening, or seeking feedback. I have seen several women PMs who grew their careers and their self-confidence once they directly faced this type of bias. You can push yourself out of your comfort zone with grace and strength while you keep in mind your “higher purpose” of learning.
  2. Push beyond the surface assumptions or patterns to find the specific points to address. Looking beyond my own experiences to include those of women I’ve coached or worked with, I’ve found that the issue often builds up unaddressed over time, becoming emotionally-fraught or complicated. It helps to take a step back and tease apart the situation. Is there a pattern? Are there specific triggers that lead to this label or interaction? Does it happen with certain teams, groups, or roles? As a PM, you are already talented at questioning to get to the root of a problem and finding a well-matched solution. Use that skill to your advantage by diagnosing the triggers to address the issue.
  3. Remember that you are not a label, and don’t let this judgment cloud your entire view. Labeling someone is unproductive, even if the intent is to help someone improve their approach or collaboration style. The rule of feedback is to address the specific instance and behavior — and not generalize to all situations. If a label is used, there’s a good chance it is an overgeneralization, misplaced, or bias. Consider it may not be you. Even a doctor asks: Is it gender bias or do I just suck?
  4. Have a direct conversation that empowers you and shifts the dialogue appropriately, if possible. If I am in a situation where I can have a conversation with someone who is using a label, I like to set up an open and professional atmosphere (say, over coffee), state my intention to work better together, and steer the conversation towards talking through specific instances of interactions, rather than any categorical label. If you have a conversation like this, you can still decide where you may take responsibility for the interactions and where you may ask for different assumptions, language choices or communication styles.
  5. Amplify the voices of other women and ask them to amplify yours. When a thought that’s shared by a female colleague is ignored in a meeting, restate the point while giving due credit. This practice is one more way to get around the ‘aggressive’ label because other people speak up on your behalf and you speak up for them.

Putting the Principles into Practice

  1. Situation: There are explicit or unspoken expectations to do work unrelated to the job that might be historically associated with gender, like getting coffee, note-taking, and planning holiday parties. I encountered this situation at a firm where I was among a key group that was expected to deliver presentations to external stakeholders regularly. I was always asked to set up the room for the meetings and order food, even though there were many of us in the group. It was only after I looked closely at the patterns that I realized it was mostly a particular executive defaulting to me as the generally responsible person willing to fill in gaps at the last minute. With that in mind, I started reminding that executive far ahead of the meetings to do the prep work, including making sure to order the coffee and find someone to take notes, so the meeting goes well. It was never assumed that I would do those tasks from that point, and I was still able to be helpful and stand my ground at the same time. Once I broke down the patterns, I could address it better and prevent future occurrences. This scenario is a rather simple example, but it’s a classic!
  2. Situation: In meetings, women tend to hesitate to speak up or are the only ones criticized for interrupting. It’s hard to approach this type of inclusion issue when you and the team are under pressure and focused on the project at hand. However, by pointing out what you experience early in a meeting or project, you allow the team to benefit in the long-term. I find that it helps to start by getting others to participate in noticing and creating inclusivity. For example, what if you started the next meeting by saying “Hey, I noticed when we talked about x in the last team meeting, women were often speaking up last. Let’s encourage newer voices to speak.” or “I tend to get excited and want to jump in, and we may interrupt each other at times. To get the best ideas on the table, can we bring another team member in to facilitate the meeting?” If you pursue small but direct changes like this, you may create a new pattern and bring others alongside you across the organization. Certainly, you can engage with other women in the organization. Female staffers in the Obama administration used this strategy to make sure their voices were heard.
  3. Situation: A man takes credit for a woman’s work. I’m a big proponent of direct conversation in these cases. It’s often worthwhile to start with a curious — rather than accusatory — mindset. I did this myself, and the individual apologized right away. More importantly, I found out some new information in the conversation that could help us move forward. Rather than starting with the accusation that the person is taking credit, you might say “I heard you say x, and I worked on this in y, z way, so I want to know if you found the work I did valuable? Or “What made you think of this idea?” If it’s a repeated pattern, continue to do your best work — and then also get some help. I encourage talking with your manager or HR to find possible solutions first, rather than going to peers or the credit taker’s supervisor. Additionally, consider ways to showcase your projects appropriately. In other words, take steps to take more credit for your work — I’m sure your stakeholders would appreciate more communication!

In all the cases above, clarifying expectations with your team and leadership can set you up for success. Sometimes, grey areas around being assertive is a matter of style and office culture, and knowing ‘how things are done around here’ will help you determine the best approach within the organization. Even more important, by having these conversations you can find and support those who firmly promote inclusion in the company.

You deserve to speak your mind, push for what you believe in, and critique ideas as long as you do this with integrity and respect.

Conclusion

Assuming you didn’t steal someone’s lunch money or force your teammates into a decision without due consideration, let me say one thing to the souls of women PMs who have been impacted by these labels: You deserve to speak your mind, push for what you believe in, and critique ideas as long as you do this with integrity and respect.

As we take this journey together on being assertive and owning our voices, I hope you find a community within your workplace or with career groups (like womeninproduct.com) to continue wrestling with the topic and ideating on solutions. Personally, I look forward to hearing more women speak loudly and fiercely, having the support of people around them and bringing up other women with them.

A global community of women working in Product Management.