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Why women in tech hold high-profile positions, but rarely CEO
Mar 30, 2023

Why women in tech hold high-profile positions, but rarely CEO

Women executives are often cast as the "adults" who keep things in order, but not the "people with the big vision," says Bloomberg columnist Beth Kowitt.

First it was Sheryl Sandberg, the longtime chief operating officer at Facebook and Meta, known also for her bestselling book about women in leadership titled “Lean In.” Last summer, she stepped down after 14 years.

Then, last month, Susan Wojcicki, the only woman CEO in Big Tech, announced her departure from YouTube, a role she’d served in for nine years after joining Google in its earliest days.

They’ve left a void of visible women at the pinnacle of the tech world. It’s a trend that columnist Beth Kowitt recently wrote about for Bloomberg News. She told Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino that the way women leaders in tech are often described offers a clue about what they face as they rise through the ranks. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Beth Kowitt: A lot of these women who had been extremely senior, extremely accomplished, really reached the peak of business in tech, were still being cast as the “adult supervision” or “grownups.” And this, I think, can be really damaging. It kind of undermines their ability to be viewed as the people with the big vision, which I think is so important when you are being considered for a CEO job.

Meghan McCarty Carino: Yeah. You included a list of words and phrases that had been used in various instances to describe YouTube’s former CEO, Susan Wojcicki, that included “non-threatening, the most measured person in tech, exceedingly normal bordering on boring, less a visionary thinker than an open-minded and analytical one.” And, my favorite, the “mother of Google.” I mean, that pretty much says it all.

Kowitt: Right, like, I don’t know if these are supposed to be compliments. Like, is this supposed to be a list of “Good job, Susan”? I don’t know. But it really struck me: Is this how we would kind of describe a man at her level? Seems unlikely.

McCarty Carino: You cover corporate culture more generally. I mean, how unique is tech in this?

Kowitt: I think we see some of the most stark examples here. I think in other areas of corporate America we don’t see CEOs who are quite as young as they are in tech because there has been this real focus on founder-led companies, and a lot of these founders are really young. So I think for a long time we saw this, I call it sort of the founder-as-God idea, where a lot of venture capitalist firms didn’t want to ruin the culture of the company or the vision by bringing in a new CEO. So I think that’s why we sort of saw all these young, and let’s be honest, men running these startups that eventually became quite large tech companies.

McCarty Carino: Right. So in other industries, there might be many different executives playing the role of “adults.” But in tech, it seems to have been pretty well relegated to these women.

Kowitt: Well, I think the contrast is really stark. Sheryl Sandberg, for example, at Meta was 15 years older than Mark Zuckerberg. And I do wonder in my column, would a man really be willing to take on that kind of a job of adult in a situation like that? I mean, if you look at Google, Eric Schmidt and the two co-founders coined the term “adult supervision,” at least kind of in this modern realm. But Eric Schmidt got to be CEO. Like, he still got to be CEO of Google. Sheryl Sandberg never got to be CEO of Facebook. So I do think there’s a difference there.

McCarty Carino: Yeah. And it seems like in a lot of cases, women executives are brought in sort of in the aftermath of some sort of crisis to kind of lend some healing energy and legitimacy and respectability or something like that.

Kowitt: Yeah, absolutely. I point to one example, where Nancy Dubuc is brought into Vice, which was really struggling with allegations of a toxic bro work culture. And she was described as the mother hen. Could she bring along these workers into a more respectable work age? And, again, sort of the framing there is very interesting. She had really a big job to do. She was supposed to not only change the company culture, but get this company working, and even sell it at a time when digital media was really struggling. So double duty there.

McCarty Carino: There is, however, one woman founder-CEO that I think everyone knows by now, and that would be Elizabeth Holmes. I mean, what do you make of kind of her position in this story?

Kowitt: She had male adult supervision, and that didn’t work out so well (laughs). So I guess this is flawed all around. Like, this model perhaps needs to be rethought in general. But I think that’s an interesting one because you could say, “OK, well, why don’t women then just start their own companies like Elizabeth Holmes, and then they can be CEOs at them?” That seems like the obvious solution. But last year, female-founded startups raised less than 2% of all venture capital funds. So if that is your proposed solution, then I think it probably makes sense to start by actually funding women. I don’t think that that is the easy or obvious answer there.

McCarty Carino: Right. And we know from research that we’ve discussed on this show that VC funding often flows to people who look like the people who are making the decisions about that money, and that is also an ecosystem that is not incredibly diverse. So I mean, where do we go from here?

Kowitt: Yeah, I mean, we have seen certainly some women take on the top job in tech. We have seen some female CEOs, and we have seen an uptick in bigger companies of female CEOs. Very small, but there is an increase. And I think part of that may be the composition of the boardroom is changing. We have seen more diversity on boards, which I think lends itself to more diversity in the C-suite. So that’s a good thing. I think one thing that might risk this is as the economy turns here, people go back to their old mental models of what a CEO should look like. And I think that is concerning.

More on this

Sandberg founded a nonprofit, the Lean In Foundation, that provides some insights in this area. In its annual “Women in the Workplace” report, released last fall, it found that women leaders across the economy were leaving their companies at higher rates than ever.

It estimated that for every woman at the director level who was promoted, two other women chose to leave their companies. But Sandberg told Bloomberg that “the issue is not women leaving, the issue is that there are so few of us in the first place.”

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The team

Daniel Shin Daniel Shin
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer