A Common Story of a Female Product Manager
Loosely based on facts from a “friend’s” professional life
Sheela was dazzled by Brotonic, a Silicon Valley company that promised to change the world. Brotonic didn’t specifically say “..for the better”.
Just, change the world.
Its employees used the word “excited” a lot, especially in the context of office perks like free beer, the fußball (fooseball) tables, and the large TV that streamed sports all day long.
Brotonic was proud of its culture of radical honesty, and its non-cliched value statements, like
“Just produce”, and
“Always deliver value”, and best of all
“Don’t burn out before you can turn up”
all of which sounded wonderful to Sheela.
Sheela was hired as a product manager on a key team at Brotonic. Although she had interviewed for the Senior Product Manager position, the hiring manager had told her that given her limited experience, she wouldn’t be able to handle the pressures that came with the “Senior” title.
So, she settled.
She settled, and how.
Sheela had no way of knowing that just a week ago, a white, male counterpart of hers with the exact same experience, was offered a Senior Product Manager role, and $50,000 more. His interview was casual, unlike hers. They even cracked jokes with him, and said he could skip the coding round since he had a computer science degree. Sheela had a computer science degree too, and was asked to complete a coding exercise despite having worked as a software developer for over three years.
She didn’t mind it. She prepared hard, and finally got the job.
The pay was much better than her current role at Broverta (a company that used AI to design optimally phallic buildings like the Broforce tower), so she jumped ship.
Her gut kept telling her it was weird that all five of her interviewers just happened to be white men. One of the interviewers interrupted her to ask her for the definition of “empathy”.
“It’s something you wouldn’t recognize if it licked your face”, she wanted to say.
Another asked: How.. technical.. would you say you are?
“The ability to use a fork or chopsticks to eat is a technical skill”, she wanted to say, but quickly swallowed her words.
One of her mentors had taught her to swallow her words for her own good.
“I was a full-stack engineer who mainly coded in C# — do you even know what C# is?— who then went to one of the best schools in the world to get a Masters. I then successfully did what you are doing today in 3 different companies, before I walked into this interview today.”
“I am an engineer turned product manager. I’ve designed and launched PaaS systems successfully for Brotopia, and Brolitics, and have a passion for API design, so.. um.. I would say I’m pretty technical, I guess.. in my opinion, that is. Sorry, I’m rambling. Does that make sense?”
Another mentor had taught her that strong women didn’t say “in my opinion” at the end of the sentence. They also didn’t say, “does that make sense?”.
Argh. Too late.
She got the job because Khrizx (pronounced Kris) was impressed with her definition of empathy. The corporate-ized version — not the one she actually had in mind!
She started working at Brotonic exactly two weeks later. Since she was on a visa that required her identity to be tied to her job, she couldn’t take time off between jobs. It was no wonder that she derived all her self-worth from her work. This feeling was “as designed”, as folks in her industry would say.
The first few months were great — she was learning, and striving to gain her boss’s trust. The free beer tasted great, and her colleagues were just beginning to tell her how pretty her name was (“what does it mean?”, said Susie). It didn’t matter that she was the only woman, and the only person of color on her team.
Her manager seemed very woke, and in tune with the perils of gender and racial bias. He talked a lot about it to her, and even recommended an unconscious bias training that Brotonic held every quarter. Since most training attendees were actually other women of color, she ended up meeting many people from her home country.
Ah! Listening to her boss talk about his commitment towards diversity — she had goosebumps.
Of course, she didn’t really see him hire any other non-white, non-male people, but, I am sure it is a pipeline problem, she told herself because that’s what she had heard.
During her first month at Brotonic, she was asked to present to the Chief. The product she had inherited was floundering, and hadn’t made the company any real money. It had been managed by her boss, Bill, and his boss, Mike, who were, naturally, buddies.
When the Chief asked her why the product was floundering, she expected Bill or Mike to answer, since she was brand new. Instead, they looked pointedly at her.
Soon after, she came up with a lot of dazzling ideas, which would have been whole, profitable companies of their own. The thing that her bosses noticed the most was the fact that she wasn’t using baseball metaphors to pitch her ideas, and they didn’t like that. It spoiled the culture of the team, which they really cared about. Her accent also made them uncomfortable, though she didn’t know it. They secretly thought it was unfair that they had to try harder to understand her. Why couldn’t everyone just have an American accent?
But, they didn’t say so, since they were Committed to Diversityᵀᴹ. Instead, they led her to believe that her ideas were not technically sound.
They’d double-check her emails before she sent them, or would ask her to share her detailed calendar with them so that they could see what she was up to. These things made her uncomfortable, but she just thought that’s how Silicon Valley companies worked.
Slowly, she started over-documenting, over-explaining, and losing touch with her own gut. She doubted her decisions, credibility, and questioned her seat at the table.
When she launched a product successfully, her bosses congratulated her engineers, causing her to doubt her abilities even more. It slowly turned into a vicious circle of self-doubt and under performance because she didn’t trust herself.
While she tried to keep up with the baseball references, and talked about the video games she played, nothing made the Brotonians (as the employees of Brotonics called themselves) trust or accept her. Soon, she started dreading team meetings, and became anxious every Tuesday when the entire team met.
Because they ignored her when she spoke, she started becoming quiet. She started turning off her video on Zoom calls. Her heart fluttered with anxiety, and her stomach churned every time she thought of her engineering manager, or her bosses (yes, she had two bosses) despite the fact that she didn’t consider them particularly competent. Since her bosses didn’t respect her, her team started treating her badly. One of the Brotonians started subtly bullying her. Every time she shared an idea or a document, he’d ask an existential question that she was meant to answer. For example, if she reviewed a document of her product priorities, he’d ask
‘Well, what IS a “product” anyway?’
derailing the entire conversation, and making Sheela question the foundations of language itself. She knew that if anyone stared at a word long enough, the meaning of that word would soon fray. Asking someone to explain commonly understood terms is bullying, but she didn’t know it then, since she was in self-doubt mode.