Diversity: Secret Weapon of Product Development

Diversity: Secret Weapon of Product Development
Reading Time: 6 minutes

In this article:

  • The job and value of a good Product Owner
  • The importance of empathy in a PO role
  • Why women are “hard-wired” to excel in the PO role
  • Tangible business benefits of gender diversity at all levels of the workforce

The tech industry tends to have more men than women across all positions, and product development is no exception. This represents a big opportunity for the industry to find ways to innovate and grow. Being the only woman on many of the teams I worked on for several years, has proven to me that gender diversity can be a powerful tool for delivering business value. In this article, I want to share why I think gender diversity on tech teams is a good business practice, and why women are especially well suited for the role of Product Owner.

When it comes to my work, the same questions always come up among my family and friends: What exactly do you do? Why is it important? And, one of my favorites: isn’t the tech industry full of men? How do you feel working with just men all the time? 

My professional experience began in 2014, at one of the biggest E-commerce companies operating in my native Colombia. I could see how consumer patterns were being affected and changed by technology, and how the products and services market was demanding novel ways of interacting with customers. In 2016, the bank I was working for started using Agile scrum methodology as part of their product development strategy. The mix of strategy and technology implementation was something I found amazing. I knew right away that this was something I wanted to do as a professional, and so began my journey as a Product Owner.

What do I do as a Product Owner? As the name implies, I am responsible for owning the product within the team, and ensuring the final outcome meets quality standards. I am responsible for planning the product development timeline according to client requirements, while always looking to deliver value in the shortest time possible. To do so, I am also responsible for communicating these requirements to the development team, who handles implementation. In my job, it is all about teamwork; without a solid understanding of the product on my side, the development team would not be able to deliver to quality standards, and without good technical skills and communication between developers, as a team we would not be able to ensure the final outcome. There are many skills required to do the job of Product owner well!

Just like my family and friends, you might be wondering what it’s like being the only woman on the team, and working with just men all the time. I would say that the real question should be, why wouldn’t every company work to increase gender diversity, and have a higher percentage of women on their teams, given all the benefits? Here, are some good reasons to do so:  

Empathy is a key skill for product development  

We’ve all heard that, as a general rule, men are more “logical”, and women are more “emotional”; in fact, there are studies that prove the structure and chemistry is different between women’s and men’s brains (The cognitive differences between men and women). Women connect situations with feelings, which can also explain why women on average have better memory. This emotional energy that makes it easier for women to picture themselves in someone’s shoes, is also known as empathy.  

Product development is about implementing the right solution after acquiring a complete understanding of the problem; in other words, it must start with the right design thinking process, where empathy turns out to be the first and maybe most important step. A customer-centric design thinking approach uses empathy to see the problem through the customer’s eyes which is generally more natural for women. With brain processes hardwired to emotions we acutely feel the customer’s needs. The result of this empathize stage is what drives success in the following phases of define, ideate, prototype and test.

As a product owner, it is part of my job to advocate on behalf of the client at every development step, from the moment I receive the project requirements to the moment when implementation is delivered. Putting yourself in the customer’s shoes through empathy makes the whole process more effective.

From “gatherers” to intuition and listening skills  

Since the early days of human evolution, when women were gatherers and caretakers, we have evolved to be really good at observing static objects, and have a more developed ability to distinguish between colors, while men (hunters) are better at tracking fast-moving objects. If you ask a man and a woman to look at the same picture with many shades of yellow and green, the woman will probably identify a higher number of shades than the man. (Men and Women Really Do See Things Differently). So, it can be argued that in fact, we do have different points of view depending on our gender. 

But it is not just eyesight that can differ between women and men. When it comes to taking action, studies have shown that men use reason more often and are guided by what they see, while women tend to rely more heavily on our knowledge, followed by our perception, intuition and our listening senses. This might explain why women generally love to listen and be actively listened to: an incredible skill for effective communication. In my role as product owner, I listen carefully to anyone I interact with. With a client or any other stakeholder, I pay attention to every little detail they describe as a need or requirement for the product. With the development team I also catch every detail they detect that needs to be taken into account to meet those requirements. This listening attitude provides an ideal teamwork environment, the developers feel they are being taken into account, and the client has peace of mind knowing that all the details are taken care of. 

Gender diversity delivers more value and increases profit 

From representing 60% of university students to just 5% of the industry CEOs (The PwC diversity journey), women tend to lose their place in the professional field over time. This clearly needs to be changed, not only as a matter of gender equality and women’s rights, but because gender diversity in the workforce leads to better results and a higher revenue. Women progressing to the highest positions at a company creates significant financial benefits; several studies have proven that increasing the percentage of women in leadership from 0% to 30% can increase a company’s revenue by up to 30% (Endeavor – Women in entrepreneurship). Clients are catching on too: we at GAP are starting to see more and more clients specifically request that we hire women to serve on their engineering teams. Having diversity inside a company brings different methods and strategies of thinking. Gender diversity creates multidisciplinary teams based around different skills and points of view that deliver more value.  

For many, being the “only one” on a team might feel intimidating; however, I like to see it the other way around: it is not intimidating but rather challenging. It forces you to give it the best you’ve got and sell yourself and your point of view. I can’t say the job is easy, but what I can tell you is that it’s about building a winning team that clients and coworkers trust, and my advice for that would be two simple steps. First, practice active listening, give everyone your full attention. Then, try to place yourself in that person’s shoes. Listening plus being empathetic is the formula that has helped me for more than 6 years, and allows me to get better and better at my job. 

To conclude, I must highlight that although these skills tend to be found more often among women, it does not mean men can’t have them or even develop them. I have discovered that in the end, it’s not about gender, it’s about having diversity in teams, being open to different ways of thinking, and being a good professional, always looking to ensure the best result. That is the real secret of good product development.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusiveness are important at GAP

We believe that actively embracing diversity drives better business outcomes, and builds a strong company culture. Diverse backgrounds and perspectives, combined with an inclusive culture foster better decision making and lead to stronger results. At GAP, leveraging our differences stimulates innovation, increases organizational agility, and helps improve our resilience to disruption. Our steady growth and long-term success are a result of a purposefully diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment that we strive to create every day.

About Maria Clara Rojas Bustamente

Maria Clara Rojas Bustamente

Maria Clara Rojas Bustamante is a Product Owner based in GAP’s Medellin, Colombia office. She is a Certified Product Owner, with 6 years of experience in project management in both Agile Scrum and waterfall methodologies. Maria is passionate about tackling new challenges and championing multidisciplinary work environments that are focused on clients’ success. She is fluent in Spanish, English, and Portuguese.