Women in Tech Are Forever Cast as ‘Adults’ But Rarely as CEO
Departures of high-powered women in tech show how limiting that label can be — casting women as incomplete leaders without the vision to take the top job.
In the early years of Facebook, the startup's motto was “move fast and break things.”
This was before the Cambridge Analytica scandal, before the platform was used to spread election and COVID-19 vaccine misinformation — essentially before we knew how much potential social media really had to, well, break things. But the problem with breaking things is that you need someone to eventually come along and clean up the mess.
Enter Sheryl Sandberg. Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg never hid the fact that he brought on Sandberg as COO to handle “ things I don't want to.” That included figuring out how the company would make money, but also acting as the antidote to his hoodie-wearing, college-dropout persona. Fifteen years Zuckerberg's senior, Sandberg was literally and figuratively the grown up in the room. The troika of Eric Schmidt, Larry Page and Sergey Brin popularized the term “ adult supervision” at Google, but it was Sandberg at Facebook who really came to embody it.
Sandberg stepped down as COO of Facebook's parent company Meta Platforms Inc. late last year, the first of a recent string of departures among senior women in tech and media that culminated with YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki and Vice Media Inc. CEO Nancy Dubuc announcing last month that they would be leaving their respective roles. With none jumping into new high-profile gigs, they leave behind a complicated legacy when it comes to women who have reached the top in the business world.
One of the chief questions left to disentangle is why the path for these high-achieving women, especially in the tech world, so often requires that they play the role of Adult. It's a label that implies a certain kind of executive; one who ensures everyone is well-behaved and on schedule, who brings stability and credibility — but not necessarily big vision. For a generation of women, that may have been the only way in the door. But amid these recent departures, it's time to examine just how limiting that label can be in perpetuating a false image of women as incomplete leaders and shouldering them with the kind of “office housework” that's not career advancing.
It comes down to this: If the default for men in tech is boy genius, for senior women — particularly at the highest level — it is still way too often office mom. “It's damaging,” Laura Kray, a professor of leadership at the Haas School of Business told me. “It adds an additional layer of complexity to the job: Make us a bazillion dollars but be nice while you do it, and also make us cookies.”
Take Dubuc, who joined Vice from A + E Networks in 2018. At the time, the digital media startup was grappling with allegations of fostering a toxic bro-culture under its founder Shane Smith. “She's strategically portrayed as the mother hen,” AdAge wrote a year after she took over, “the grown-up meant to shepherd the grungy, skateboard-toting Vicers who previously had little adult supervision.” Never mind that in addition to transforming the company's culture, she was also given the impossible task of turning around Vice's finances and selling off the company amid a struggling digital media industry.
Even Wojcicki, one of Google's first employees who in February said she would be leaving the company after 25 years, has been called all of the things that adult supervision is meant to signal — even if not overtly getting pinned as a grown up: “nonthreatening,” “the most measured person in tech,” “exceedingly normal, bordering on boring,” “less a visionary thinker than an open-minded and analytical one,” and the “ mother of Google.” Never mind that she pushed the company to acquire YouTube and, as its CEO, turned it into a massive streaming business (albeit a problematic one). And despite being the “mother of Google,” she never made it to the top job at Alphabet Inc. When the board named Wojcicki's colleague Ruth Porat CFO in 2015, The New York Times trumpeted that “Adult Supervision is back at Google.” The piece, which mentioned “discipline” nine times, noted Porat was perfect for the job as “Google was maturing and looking for more credibility with investors.”
One reason the trope of adult supervision became rampant in Silicon Valley was the rise of the startup founder-as-God mindset in the 2000s. The ethos was perpetuated by Andreessen Horowitz, whose venture capital firm grew its reputation and business on the belief that founders must remain CEO to uphold a company's mission. But that often meant bringing in a seasoned executive who could fill in all the gaps where the inexperienced founder was lacking — in other words, a Sheryl Sandberg.
This model became so dominant that Christa Quarles, CEO of software company Alludo, told me that when she'd been looking to make her latest career move, she was shocked by the number of people who told her to “go be a Sheryl to someone's Mark.” They wanted her to be the CEO without the title, the economics, or the moral authority. “I don't know how many men they would have said this to,” she told me. (It's worth noting that although Schmidt seemed to embrace his duties of adult supervision at Google, he at least got to be CEO.)
Subsequently chief operating officer became one of the few high-level senior roles women in tech could land, a phenomenon my then-colleague Leigh Gallagher detailed in a 2018 piece in Fortune. Gallagher posed the question of whether the influx of female COOs would give rise to a new generation of female CEOs, or instead turn into its own kind of glass ceiling — “a position from which accomplished women leaders stoke the industry's growth, in a perpetual supporting role, without breaking into the CEO boys' club.”
I followed up on the COOs Gallagher's piece mentions and, so far at least, the latter seems to be true. Few have moved into chief executive roles. Not even Sandberg, whose name at one time was tossed around as a possible contender to lead the likes of Walt Disney Co. or even as a presidential candidate. No one seems to talk about those options for her anymore. It's still possible she'll pop up as CEO of a Fortune 500 company. But it's just as likely she's been too tainted by the Meta scandals that, yes, in many cases she did help create, but was primarily responsible for cleaning up.
If the tech world's answer to this dilemma is that women should just launch and run their own companies, it might want to start by actually investing in them. Last year female-founded startups raised a paltry 1.9% of all venture capital funds. There are signs, however, that the old paradigm of never replacing a founder with more seasoned leadership is finally starting to crack. Jana Rich, CEO and founder of executive search firm Rich Talent Group, told me that she's never seen so much CEO recruitment activity. That could eventually mean a new path for women to the corner office that doesn't require the baggage that comes with being labeled the adult. If that happens, it might finally be a sign that Silicon Valley is growing up.
Beth Kowitt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering corporate America. She was previously a senior writer and editor at Fortune Magazine.