“She is just not strategic:” Addressing the Gender Perception Gap

Building Your Product Career, Growing with Community, Posts

By: Laura Marino, Chief Product Officer; Advisor; Board Member, Stanford Lecturer

Earlier in my career, my boss told me that “I wasn’t strategic enough.”  By then, I had been the VP of Product at the company for almost four years. During my tenure, I had built a high-performing product organization, we had quadrupled the number of products and the revenue, we had made three successful acquisitions, and we were expanding into adjacent industries.  So my boss’ decision to bring an SVP of Product and Market Strategy and put me and the woman who was the Director of Product Marketing under him came as a shock. 

That experience forced me to ask several questions:  Why wasn’t I perceived as strategic despite all my success leading our product growth?  More generally:  What does it really mean to be strategic as a product leader? And, why is it that ‘not being strategic enough’ is primarily applied to women?

As I progressed in my career, I have learned things about myself, I have observed women and men in the tech industry, and I have gained experience from being an executive at various companies during good and bad economic times. While I may not have perfect answers to my questions, I have a deeper understanding of what it takes to not only be a strategic product leader but also to be perceived as one.

Strategic product leadership

 ‘Being strategic’ can mean different things to different people.  For many in product, it evokes the image of Steve Jobs as a visionary genius. While observing trends, identifying opportunities, and driving product innovation is an important part of being strategic, this is an incomplete picture.  

A definition I find helpful is: 

 “Being strategic is the ability to lead ourselves, our teams, and our organizations, in a way that advances the company’s mission and goals and creates an advantage for the long term.”   

 Nina Bowman, Executive Coach

This definition points to several pieces that are important. Successfully ‘leading a team and organization’ requires the ability to build, retain, and inspire a high-performing team. No product leader succeeds alone, no matter how visionary they may be.  ‘Advancing the company’s mission and goals’ points to the fact that product strategy is not independent of business strategy and financial goals.  Product strategy has to move the product forward to fulfill the company’s long-term mission and vision, but it also needs to align with the mid-term business strategy and support short-term financial goals. 

The balancing act: short-term vs. long-term 

At the core of strategic product leadership lies the ability to balance short-term demands with long-term goals and align resources accordingly. This requires a delicate balancing act, ensuring immediate needs are met while building a sustainable and competitive future. And that means being ready to make difficult tradeoffs.

Less than two months after joining a fintech company as CPO,  I found myself telling the CEO that we needed to fire our biggest logo customer – a large financial services organization with a globally recognized brand. This was not how I had envisioned making an impact in my first 90 days. But, as early as during the interview process, I had heard concerns from the CTO and others regarding the amount of resources dedicated to addressing the unique needs of this one client. So I worked with product and engineering to analyze in detail how the bandwidth of the teams was being allocated. We found that 18% of all work was going to build non-reusable, custom functionality for this customer, and there was no end in sight. The company was counting on additional revenue from the customer, and Sales was benefiting from mentioning their brand to open new opportunities. But once I presented the data, it was clear that this product investment was going to prevent us from achieving our long-term goals. And the executive team agreed to part ways with the client. The decision allowed us to refocus resources on much-needed scaling of our core platform and on innovation in our ML models and in the consumer-facing experience. 

Protecting future growth may require pushing back on go-to-market teams and even the CEO. So, how can you be successful in convincing the executive team to forego short-term revenue in favor of sustainable growth?  There are two things that help

Back your arguments with data: It is not uncommon for product leaders to hear, “If we just commit to doing X, we can close the deal” and  “How hard can it be?”.  Explaining that accommodating the request will derail other priorities will likely not be enough. Ideally, you want to quantify the opportunity cost of reassigning engineering to that effort. When the request is for custom development, it is particularly important to show that the cost is much larger than the investment in the initial development of the functionality.  Ensuring that the functionality continues to work as the product evolves will require an ongoing investment of engineering resources for the life of that customer. 

Translate technical arguments to business impact: Sales typically don’t understand or care about technical debt or platform scalability, and they will push for new functionality that clients want or that competitors are offering. But scalability and reliability are critical for growth, and it is your responsibility, in collaboration with the CTO,  to ensure that the right investment is made in it. One of the most effective ways to get buy-in from the go-to-market teams is to first explain what will happen if the investment is not made. The inability to onboard and serve new clients, potential outages, and missed client SLAs are risks they understand. You can then remind them that customers value scalability and reliability, especially for mission-critical applications, and that the company’s commitment to it is a selling point for customers and prospects.

In the current macroeconomic environment, companies have been forced to focus less on growth and more on ways to extend runway and find a path to profitability. As a product leader today, you likely will be under pressure to support short-term results. You need to understand the financial goals of the company and partner closely with your cross-functional peers to determine how to best realign product investment.  This may mean slowing down or temporarily stopping long-term strategic product initiatives and prioritizing tactical efforts that will help close sales or retain key customers in the short term. 

These types of decisions, which will typically come from the top down, can be demoralizing to product and engineering teams, especially if they have to temporarily abandon a project they were excited about. So it is very important that you help them understand why the priorities were changed and how the work they need to focus on now will contribute to the company’s goals. A few tips to help:

Be as transparent as possible: Share financial results and revenue goals with your team and engineering. Engineers are data-driven and will accept the decisions if they understand the numbers behind them. I have been fortunate to work at companies that value transparency. In one case, I had the President of the company present to the product and engineering leaders the details of the financial plan and revenue assumptions, and that helped them get on board with the new priorities.

Increase their empathy toward other stakeholders: In B2B and B2B2C companies, sales and client success teams are under enormous pressure to deliver on their numbers, and they are the ones directly interacting with unhappy clients and unresponsive prospects. Inviting those stakeholders to share their experiences can go a long way in getting engineering and product more excited about focusing on tactical initiatives. I have also found that having engineers listen to client calls when the client is complaining about issues they might have perceived as minor can be very effective.

Perhaps you are already skillfully navigating the complexities of business, aligning short-term goals with long-term objectives, and making challenging decisions to drive success. But you may still not be perceived as ‘strategic.’ Why?

The Gender Perception Gap

If you google “women not perceived as strategic,” you will get a long list of recent articles and blogs discussing the issue. While studies, such as the one run by GC Index show that female leaders are no less adept at strategic thinking than men, the perception of a difference is real. There are various theories to explain that perception gap, but based on my experience, below are the three factors I think are most relevant. 


A study by Zenger/Folkman shows that women start their careers with a much lower level of self-confidence than men. But as their careers progress, that gap decreases, and so does the gap in the perception of strategic ability.  Many of us are not surprised by this correlation between self-confidence and the perception of being strategic because we have seen the examples.

Donna (not her real name) knew our consumers better than anyone. When I joined, she had already been with the company for years, understood the product and the business, and had learned what worked and what didn’t work to engage our users. She had been leading the team of designers, user researchers, and content creators to optimize the consumer experience. But she was only a Sr. Manager of UX, and the consensus was that she wasn’t ready to be a Director.

As I started working with her and the team, I noticed that she had great knowledge and ideas but wasn’t comfortable speaking up. I remember meetings where the CEO and the product managers were throwing ideas, and she was quietly sending me Slack messages telling me how some of those ideas had already been tested and failed and how there were other things we should try instead … She wanted me to speak on her behalf.

It took a lot of coaching, but she finally realized that, as the expert in her area, she had to speak up and, if necessary, push back on the CEO and others in order to make the greatest impact on our consumers and our product. She is now a Director with significant influence across the company.

Impostor syndrome and lack of self-confidence plague women more than men. So what should you do?  

Embrace your expertise and speak up. You are a product leader, and while you may not know every detail about the technology, every nuance about the market and the competitive environment, or every number in the financial plan, you have the best understanding of how the customers, the product, the business, and the company vision fit together. Don’t be afraid to speak up.

Contribute to broader company issues. Don’t feel that you have to limit yourself to your functional product expertise. Product touches everything, and you and your team interact with many internal stakeholders. Your unique perspective is valuable, and you can provide meaningful input to discussions about people strategy, growth strategy, retention strategy, and financial health.

Execution excellence  

Women are often known for their exceptional organizational and execution skills. We have a strong sense of responsibility and a commitment to deliver results. There is a famous quote from former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during her time in power: “In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man; if you want anything done, ask a woman.” Unfortunately, this can lead to women being labeled as ‘doers’ rather than strategic thinkers. And to being assigned more operational tasks, unintentionally diverting us from strategic opportunities.

Resisting the urge to jump in and get things done can be particularly difficult for women product leaders.  Early on in our careers, we learn that product managers are responsible for the success of the product. In my classes, I tell students that, as much as they might have heard that product managers are ‘the CEO of the product,’ they are also the ‘janitor’ and need to be ready to pick up anything that is falling through the cracks. But learning to delegate and assign work to your team and to others becomes increasingly important as you progress in your career. There is an important first step to help you do that.

Step back and evaluate how you are spending your time: Are you working on things that,

  • Should be done by your team, but you are doing them because it is more efficient? If so, delegate that work. It may take longer to complete well, but it will help your team grow.  
  • Should be done by your team, but you are doing them because the team is so underwater that they can’t handle them? If so, it is time to discuss resourcing and tradeoffs with your executives. 
  • Should be done by other teams, but you are doing them because you know it will be a hassle to get them to own them and deliver on time? If so, talk to your cross-functional counterpart and make sure that ownership and accountability are clear.

Playing the hero by sweeping in and doing the work of others will earn you admiration as ‘the one who gets sh*t done,’ but it will not advance your image as a strategic thinker.

Communication style

As a consequence of the two issues mentioned before, women frequently adopt a less assertive approach in their interactions than men and tend to focus on details they know well in their communication. This can lead to concerns about a lack of vision and decisiveness, both of which are associated with strategic leadership.

How you communicate can have a significant impact on how you are perceived.  Here are some tips to up-level your communication 

Set the context: No matter what the meeting or presentation is, before diving into details, take a step back and set the context of how this fits in the bigger picture. Even if you think this is something your audience ought to know, repetition is good, and you will be surprised at how many people will appreciate having a framework.

Speak the language of business: As the product leader, you are the nexus between the business, the customers, and the technology. You must understand how what your team is doing translates to business results and be prepared to communicate that connection clearly and succinctly. This is particularly important if you are presenting to the board.

Project confidence: This does not mean that you stop listening to others or reject alternative views. But you are the expert, and have done the work, so you should present your insights and recommendations with authority and confidence. It will increase your credibility and the trust that others have in your ability to lead.

It has been many years since I heard the ‘you are not strategic’ feedback. That doesn’t mean things have changed much or there is no longer a gender perception gap.  Still, there are things we can do individually and as a community to close that gap. As an individual, pay attention to the three factors discussed above. You may be surprised at how quickly the perception that others have about you can shift.  As part of the community, support other women so that their strategic abilities are recognized, and they can advance to leadership positions. The more successful women leaders there are, the faster the idea of what ‘strategic’ should look like will be revised.

As for the SVP of Market and Product Strategy, he lasted only a few months after I left the company.  I heard that he just couldn’t get sh*t done.

About the author

Laura Marino

Laura is a Chief Product Officer, Board Member, Advisor to CEOs, and Lecturer. She has over 25 years of experience leading product teams in large and small B2B and B2B2C companies, including Nuance, Microsoft, Intapp, Lever, and more recently TrueML, a fintech company using AI to reinvent debt resolution. Laura is passionate about teaching and promoting diversity.

As a guest lecturer at Stanford University and at Los Andes University in Colombia, she shares her expertise in product management with the next generation of leaders. As a board member of the non-profit Leading Women in Technology, she promotes women’s leadership. And as one of the few female Latin American technology executives in Silicon Valley, she strives to serve as a role model for the Latinx community.

She has been a home winemaker for almost as long as she has been leading products (and there are many parallels between the art and science of making a great cabernet and the art and science of building great products).