When Susan Wojcicki was named CEO of YouTube in 2014, she was in relatively good company as a woman leader in Silicon Valley.
Marissa Mayer, her former colleague at Google, was running Yahoo and posing for magazine covers. Sheryl Sandberg was the influential second-in-command at Facebook who had just published a best-selling book on corporate feminism. Former California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman was at the helm of HP, and Ginni Rometty was the first woman in charge of IBM.
Wojcicki’s announcement last week that she is stepping down from her leadership role at YouTube marks the end of an era. The tech industry has now lost an entire generation of trailblazing women leaders and replaced them mostly with men.
“It’s almost like we have to start from scratch,” said Sheryl Daija, the founder of Bridge, an advocacy group comprised of dozens of diversity, equity, and inclusion business leaders.
The tech sector has long lagged other industries when it comes to the representation of women in leadership roles. And in the wake of the pandemic, women leaders in corporate America more broadly are more likely than ever to quit, according to the most recent Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org. Just days before Wojcicki’s announcement, Meta’s chief business officer, Marne Levine, also said she would be leaving after a 13-year run at the company.
None of the Big Five US tech companies — Alphabet, Apple, Meta, Amazon and Microsoft — have ever had a woman CEO, and Wojcicki’s chief executive title at Alphabet-subsidiary YouTube perhaps put her the closest. Now that she’s departing, Big Tech is facing a new reckoning over its failure to promote and support women leaders, and what this could mean for the next generation of women in the industry.
In Silicon Valley’s boy’s club, women ‘have to fight a little harder’
As a woman in Silicon Valley, “It’s fair to say you have to fight a little harder,” said Sima Sistani, the co-founder and former CEO of the app Houseparty, who held leadership roles at Epic Games, Yahoo and Tumblr before becoming CEO of WeightWatchers last year.
“Having a network of other women was critical to my success,” Sistani said. “And I give a lot of credit to the women who helped support and also blaze the trail forward.”
Sistani isn’t alone in fighting the uphill battle women in tech face. Silicon Valley has long taken heat for its male-dominated “bro-culture.”
Francoise Brougher, the former chief operating officer of Pinterest, sued the social media platform for gender discrimination and retaliation in 2020, arguing in court documents that she was fired after reporting “demeaning sexist comments” towards her from another company executive. Pinterest settled the lawsuit later that year, but the legal battle was seen as yet another example in a string of incidents highlighting how even the most powerful women in tech are treated.
There are still a handful of, albeit lesser-known, women in the upper echelon of tech, including Meta CFO Susan Li, Oracle CEO Safra Catz, and Lisa Su, CEO of chipmaker AMD. Meanwhile, some well known women in tech, such as Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s former head of legal, policy and trust, have become targets of vicious online harassment campaigns.
Laura Kray, a professor of leadership at the University of California, Berkeley, said that with Wojcicki’s exit from YouTube, “it is hard to read the latest departure of a high-profile woman leader as anything but more evidence that the tech sector has not realized its stated aspirations for creating inclusive cultures that are able to attract and retain top talent.”
Driving change for the future
Now at the helm of WeightWatchers, Sistani brings her digital expertise to the company, as well as her experience as a woman leader in the workplace. Late last year, Sistani, a mother of two, expanded WeightWatchers’ paid parental leave policy, a move she viewed as crucial for driving equitable opportunities for all parents at the company.
Kray, who is also the director of Berkeley’s Center for Equity, Gender and Leadership, said that having women in top leadership positions is crucial as it gives entry-level women role models and mentorship opportunities “from leaders who may have faced similar challenges as they rose through the ranks.”
This representation at the very top is critical for women in middle management, the point at which women tend to see their higher career aspirations realized or thwarted. “Without women in the C-suite who have come before them, it could make this transition period tougher for next generation women leaders,” Kray said.
Daija, of the Bridge organization, added that one lesson from this exodus of high-profile women tech leaders is the importance of succession planning, to ensure that when a woman CEO steps down there are other women ready to build on their progress. “When the roles are replaced with the same representation that we already have, we don’t keep losing ground, we maintain, and we build,” she said.
Wojcicki will be succeeded by Neal Mohan, a 15-year Google vet who was most recently the chief product officer at YouTube.
While Sistani said it can feel like “we’ve taken a step back” with so many high-profile women in tech stepping aside, she added, “I think that it’s important for us to also look for the places where things are working.”
She pointed to the fact that women CEOs now run more than 10% of Fortune 500 companies for the first time in history.
“Instead of getting discouraged in these moments, we can think about what a great example someone like Susan [Wojcicki] is setting,” Sistani added. “I think that what she achieved and what she modeled will be something that will live on beyond the fact that now we don’t have a female Big Tech CEO.”