What Sheryl Sandberg’s exit reveals about women’s progress in tech

When Sheryl Sandberg said this week that she was resigning as chief operating officer of Meta, she also reflected on her legacy as a woman in tech.

“I’m especially proud that this is a company where many, many exceptional women and people from diverse backgrounds have risen through our ranks and become leaders – both in our company and in leadership roles elsewhere,” she wrote in an announcement posted on her Facebook and Instagram pages.

Yet even as Sandberg lauded the progress of women at Meta, the broader reality for female leaders at the top of the tech industry has been far more disappointing. And with her exit this fall, Silicon Valley is losing one of its most visible and outspoken female executives, leaving few – some would say zero – similar peers in her wake.

Sandberg, 52, was part of a cohort of women at major tech companies who made keynote speeches, rose to the level of founders like Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg, and had a seat at the table at high-powered business gatherings like the Allen & Co. conference in Sun Valley, Idaho. But over the years, many of these women – including Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, Meg Whitman of Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Ginni Rometty of IBM – have departed, often with their reputations in tatters.

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More broadly, women have not made notable gains in recent years in the highest echelons of Alphabet, Apple, Amazon, Meta and other tech giants where the corridors of power continue to be dominated by men. The industry record on female leadership trails that of other industries, even as tech exerts more influence in the global economy and in people’s lives.

“The CEO is the face of the company,” and in the tech industry, “somehow collectively the world seems to want the face to be a white man,” said Jenny Lefcourt, a founder of All Raise, a nonprofit focused on advancing gender and racial equality, and an investor at Freestyle Capital.

At Silicon Valley’s top 150 firms by revenue, 4.8% were led by women at the end of 2020, unchanged from 2018, according to a report by law firm Fenwick & West. In contrast, the percentage of female CEOs of companies in the S&P 500 index rose to 6% at the end of 2020 from 4.8% in 2018.

Some women in positions of power at publicly traded tech companies, such as Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s general counsel, have become targets of harassment. Others, such as Françoise Brougher, the former chief operating officer of Pinterest, have sued for discrimination. And in recent years, female tech leaders have often appeared to be hired to clean up someone else’s mess, leading to the term “glass cliff,” a play on the “glass ceiling” and a reference to the high risks of the roles.

Some women now in charge of public tech companies include Safra Catz of Oracle, Lisa Su of Advanced Micro Devices and Sarah Friar of Nextdoor, though they have tended to be more private than Sandberg.

Alphabet, which owns Google, and Microsoft also have women in their executive suites, such as their chief financial officers (Ruth Porat at Alphabet, Amy Hood at Microsoft), and those heading up business units, including Susan Wojcicki at YouTube. A generation of tech startups are also led by women, such as Melanie Perkins at design software maker Canva and Fiji Simo at delivery company Instacart.

But women still face obstacles in almost every facet of the tech ecosystem. Annual diversity reports published by Amazon, Google and Apple show incremental gains for women in leadership. Venture capital firms remain dominated by men, while female founders garner a tiny portion of funding. Stories about toxic workplaces, discrimination and harassment continue reverberating throughout Silicon Valley.

“If we stay at this current rate of progress, it will take way beyond our lifetimes to get to parity,” Lefcourt said. “We need exponential change from here.”

In the internet era, some women were tapped to lead, including Carol Bartz, the former Autodesk CEO who became Yahoo’s CEO in 2009. Other women joined startups like Google, which soon ballooned. When Sandberg left her job as a Google vice president for Facebook in 2008, she helped create a new archetype of an experienced female executive who was helping to professionalize startups founded by men. (Facebook was renamed Meta last year.)

“It wasn’t that she was just a COO, Mark made sure she was truly elevated in stature,” said Emilie Choi, chief operating officer of Coinbase, a cryptocurrency exchange, referring to Sandberg and Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. Choi said she and other women in tech used Sandberg’s template to work alongside tech founders.

In 2013, Sandberg published her bestselling business manifesto, “Lean In,” which encouraged women to grab opportunities and to more aggressively seek promotions and raises.

At public tech companies, more women were named to executive jobs. Ursula Burns was elevated to Xerox’s CEO in 2009. Mayer became Yahoo’s CEO in 2012 after a long career at Google, while Rometty was named IBM’s CEO that same year. In 2014, Catz became co-CEO at Oracle. Microsoft appointed Hood chief financial officer in 2013, while Google hired Porat as chief financial officer in 2015.

But many of them encountered difficulties in steering aging tech companies. Of those women, only Catz, Hood and Porat remain in their roles.

“The snail’s pace of progress for women leaders in Silicon Valley is worse than disappointing,” said Nicole Wong, a deputy chief technology officer for the Obama administration and a former Twitter executive. “It makes the commitments that tech leaders made around racial and gender diversity in 2014 look performative.”

Women in tech have continued talking out about unfair treatment. In 2020, Brougher reached a $ 22.5 million settlement with Pinterest for discrimination and retaliation. A discrimination lawsuit by Emily Kramer, a former chief marketing officer at the financial startup Carta, is working its way through the courts.

There have been some signs of progress. Over the past five years, Katrina Lake of Stitch Fix, Julie Wainwright of The RealReal, Jennifer Hyman of Rent the Runway and Whitney Wolfe Herd of Bumble took the companies they founded in public. And following in Sandberg’s footsteps, female chief operating officers are now more common in tech. They include Choi at Coinbase, Gwynne Shotwell at SpaceX and Jen Wong at Reddit.

At Meta, Sandberg hired and promoted women, such as Marne Levine, the chief business officer, and Lori Goler, the head of human resources and hiring. The percentage of women in Meta’s management with titles of director or higher increased to 35% in 2021, from 30% in 2018, according to the company’s data.

Meta also developed women who now lead other tech companies, including Simo, who oversaw the main Facebook app before becoming Instacart’s CEO last year.

“Sheryl’s leadership has really mattered to a lot of us,” said Kate Rouch, the chief marketing officer of Coinbase who was an employee at Meta until August.

But when Sandberg leaves her job in the next few months, Javier Olivan, a longtime Meta executive, will take over the role of chief operating officer. Olivan will be one of four top MPs to Zuckerberg focused on technology and policy – and all of them are men.

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