Gender and Power

According to the PMWB 2017 report, approximately 39% of product managers in China are female[1]. In terms of the level distribution of my former company, approximately 61% of associate product managers are female, yet only 21% of senior product managers (SPM) and 16% of product directors (PD) are females. Notably, there are also very few famous female product managers in the industry. The intervention of maternity and job duty changes are potential reasons for the steep decline in the percentage of female SPMs as well as PDs. 


There are four levels of Product Managers at my former company

Associate Product Manager/Product Manager (APM/PM):

APMs and PMs are usually responsible for ensuring the on-time delivery and the quality of applications (whether the development followed the initial design). APMs and PMs usually work with a particular development team for a two- or three-month period and then move on to the next project. An APM is usually promoted to a PM after working for one to two years.

Senior Product Manager (SPM):

SPM is usually responsible for the design of an entire product. SPMs are also responsible for resource arrangements, such as seizing advertisement and promotion resources from other product teams/departments, as well as acquiring support from cross-functional teams such as BD and HR. A PM usually receives an SPM promotion opportunity after working as a PM for three to five years.

Product Director:

A PD is usually responsible for running an entire product team. Not every SPM has the ability to be promoted to a PD, and the process takes one to ten years.

My Experience in APM/PM

Usually, female APMs and PMs in my team receive higher scores in communication and project management evaluation and push projects faster than male APMs and PMs. As we mentioned before, a PM will usually work with an RD team for several months and then move on to the next project so adapting to the new development team quickly is incredibly important. According to my observation, female APMs and PMs did a much better job than male PMs. Usually, male PMs tend to become familiar with a new RD team through meetings and discussing schedules and progress. Meanwhile, female PMs usually focus more on establishing personal relationships by sending snacks, having lunch together and occasionally partaking in small talk. After, they are able to influence the allocation and priority of developers’ work through personal relationships. With an excellent personal relationship, it will also be easier to persuade developers to work late. One critical reason that male product managers are not able to follow this strategy is that it is more reasonable for female PMs to discuss personal topics with male developers, such as what gift they should send to their girlfriends or recommendations on good photo spots. However, it is relatively strange and awkward for two men to talk about life subjects when they are not very familiar with each other under Chinese culture. Additionally, it is much easier for female PMs to become familiar with female developers. However, it is not as easy for a male PM. Under the circumstance that male and female staff share almost the same design and other professional abilities, female APMs usually receive promotions faster.

My Experience in SPM

At the SPM level, however, only 21% of SPM are female. Furthermore, after analyzing the source of the SPM, I realized that most female senior product managers are externally recruited to our company as a senior product manager instead of being promoted from within the company. Therefore, I examined the data of all the product managers who applied for the 2018 SPM promotion and found that:

  • The average age of females receiving a promotion is 32, while it is 28 for males
  • The average work year of females is seven, while it is five for males
  • The promotion evidence for females usually focuses more on product design contributions. Meanwhile, for males, the promotion evidence varies from business development to product management.

Through the association with the promotion policy, it is easy to identify the reason. Most product managers are qualified for promotions after working for four or five years, which is when they are in their late 20s. In China, however, the 27 to 29 age range is also when women are pushed to have their first baby. Under the One-Child Policy that every family is allowed to only have one baby, the entire family would consider giving birth to their first child at a relatively early age to be of great importance. As a result, women at that age would face significant pressure from their families. Meanwhile, to a company, fertility also means absence from the working position for more than a year. After the promotion, most new SPMs will be responsible for an individual product as well as for income performance and user performance. Consequently, absence for a year means that the product will be handed to another person, and this person might not be in the same team. Concerning this issue, most team leaders will not nominate married unmothered women as candidates. Instead, they would nominate those who already have a child so as to increase the success rate of the promotion. However, most women will allocate more attention to their families during the first several years after childbirth as they have to look after their child and so they are not able to participate in the promotion process. Therefore, the average age for women candidates is much higher than male candidates, meaning that most female SPMs are married while a large part of male SPMs may still be single.

Notably, the Internet industry is an industry with a breakneck pace, requiring its employees to devote a significant amount of energy and attention to work. Daily work duties such as user research method A/B test requires an immense time investment. To some degree, the more time an SPM devotes, the more rapid tests the SPM could conduct, thus enabling the product to achieve a better data performance. Take my product team as an example; a single SPM could devote more than ten more hours a week than a married SPM. Although working late is never encouraged, more working time can almost directly relate to increased contribution to the entire team and product. Specifically, this generates a dilemma for female product managers. Although they have enough time prior to having their first baby, they may not have enough permission to conduct things. The future child will be an undropped boot that will stop them from receiving a promotion or from job-hopping. After they give birth to their child, they have to allocate time for the baby, so they do not have as much time as their unmarried competitors.

Another metric in the promotion evaluation makes things even worse. As we mentioned before, as an SPM, one essential metric is the cross-functional team and department cooperation ability. The SPM will be required to undertake business development work when the product requires inter-department or inter-company collaboration. Under the influence of an alcohol-culture, which asks participants who collaborate to have dinner together and show their willingness by drinking as much alcohol as they can, female SPMs find it more challenging to be part of this type of alcohol game, along with the activities after drinking. This is similar to other traditional industries in China. Back in 2016, my company wanted to collaborate with the Ministry of Public Security and bring an AMBER-like missing child system online. I was asked to work alongside another female SPM, and the only reason I was chosen was that I was able to drink with the leaders of the Ministry of Public Security. Lacking the experience of this kind of cooperation would also limit female PMs from being promoted to SPMs as well as from SPMs to PDs.


The situation that female PMs find it more difficult to be promoted will certainly persist for a long time. Under the pressure that women in China have to give birth in their late 20s, giving birth would act as the Sword of Damocles above all married or single female PMs. However, this is not a disadvantage that cannot be self-proved nor avoided. The key implication of the delayed SPM promotion we mentioned before is that women in China will certainly have their babies in the late 20s. As now China already altered its policy to Two-Child, and with a larger portion of female PMs provided examples that not giving birth in the late 20s, the implication will collapse itself eventually.

What’s more, one of the advantages of the internet industry is that it is still relatively young, and the ratio of males to females is still in a fairly reasonable status. Unlike some other traditional industries, there is still a large number of female PMs joining this industry, creating a power that cannot be neglected and can prevent other gender-based stereotypes from occurring. To some degree, this situation makes it easier for women to get promoted.

Another fact is that the Internet industry is not an industry that heavily relies on networking or industry relationships like the construction industry. As long as a product is good enough, the product could acquire enough users and survive. Consequently, it is still a startup-friendly industry. This means that it is possible for female entrepreneurs to alter the influence of traditional male-based industries and not adapt to the male-based rules.

[1] “Product Manager White Book 2017,” last modified Jan 29, 2018,

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