When Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, stepped down a few weeks ago, CNN described it as the end of an era as the tech sector had "lost an entire generation of trailblazing women leaders and replaced them mostly with men".
At the time Wojcicki was appointed in 2014, the article pointed out, Marissa Mayer, her former colleague at Google, had been running Yahoo. Sheryl Sandberg was second-in-command at Facebook, Meg Whitman headed up HP and Ginni Rometty was the first female boss of IBM. They have all since moved on, as Meta’s chief business officer Marne Levine now also plans to do after having been at the company for 13 years.
So just what is going on here, and is the tech industry really going backwards rather than forwards in terms of tech women at the top as the CNN piece implies? Opinions are mixed.
Seeing the bigger picture
Victoria Phillips, Chief Operating Officer at digital marketing and commerce services provider Avionos, believes the article is “a bit sensationalist”:
It doesn’t tell the fuller story of the natural progression of people’s careers and that these women have moved on to do other things in the tech sector. There has been progress compared to 10 years ago but if we talk about the negatives, it’s discouraging for other women wanting to advance in their careers. It’s not setting us up for success. You have to look at progress over time and it’s misleading just to focus on a snapshot.
But Bev White, Chief Executive of global professional services company Nash Squared, points out that the reason why the situation hit the headlines is because of the “woefully inadequate” numbers of women in senior roles in the first place – even if things may be slowly improving. The firm’s 2022 Digital Leadership Report indicated, for instance, that women accounted for 14% of leadership roles around the world (10% in the US and 15% in the UK) last year, up from 8% in 2015. White says:
I’m not convinced there’s currently more movement among women leaders than normal, but when there are so few, it becomes more visible. If you looked at the percentage of high-profile men leaving their jobs, you probably wouldn’t see much difference, but they don’t attract as much attention.
Inadequate female talent pipelines
As to why the high-profile women referred to in the CNN article are being replaced by men, Jill Gates is Vice President of Culture and People at digital transformation services company Ensono, believes that such a statement “makes it sound more intentional than it is”. But she also acknowledges that:
It’s unfortunate the industry hasn’t been better at the succession planning of more female talent. It’s a significant problem, although I don’t think for a moment that the companies concerned were actively saying they didn’t want a woman for the job.
Aimee Treasure, Marketing Director at technology-focused recruitment consultancy Templeton & Partners agrees, pointing to an inadequate female talent pipeline:
While the reasons women leaders are leaving their jobs are similar to those in other industries, overall they’re more likely to leave tech, with half quitting before the age of 35. So it’s a tiny pipeline, and we need to see more women at all levels of the industry so they can move on to more senior roles. But it’s also about referrals, which are a very effective way to get talent into the business. If the majority of referrals are coming from white men, most people from their networks will be similar. This means if someone leaves, the organisation is more likely to go for what it knows.
Such a situation is also likely to be exacerbated by what McKinsey describes as the ‘Great Breakup’. In its ‘Women in the Workplace 2022’ report, the management consultancy indicated that women leaders were changing jobs (across all sectors) at the highest rates it had ever seen. Reasons ranged from feeling overworked and underrecognized to being unhappy with the company culture.
A lot of DEI work still to do
But Treasure believes women leaders are facing other challenges too:
If you ask women ‘what would make your job better and what do you need?’, some of the things are insidious. Senior women in terms of both age and experience are frequently members of the sandwich generation, where they’re responsible for the majority of childcare and looking after aged parents. It often means they have to transition to part-time but the problem is I don’t know of any leaders who are part-time or job-share, and remote options aren’t enough. Flexibility is great but as a female tech leader, it doesn’t necessarily fit around your life.
As to where women tech leaders go on leaving their senior roles, again the picture appears mixed. The most common moves, Treasure says, are to assume either interim or contracting roles or to take on a tech post in another industry, particularly financial services. While more women are also setting up their own companies, funding remains a challenge as venture capitalists still prefer to finance male founders as a rule, she adds.
What all of this means, believes Gates, is that the tech industry still has a lot of work to do in terms of gender diversity:
I don’t think the tech industry is moving forward. At best, it’s holding its own, if that…As a result of the last few years, many diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives haven’t been as invested in as heavily as they need to be to achieve success. Also when redundancies are made, D&I professionals have been the first out of the door, followed by learning & development. Despite being vitally important, organizations say overnight they’re a luxury they can no longer afford. And there’s also always shortages of senior women, so I don’t see things getting any easier over the next few years.
White, however, is rather more optimistic:
I do believe the industry is going forward. You have to look at things in the round and while the increase in women leaders may be a small percentage, it is an increase. You also have to take other positive factors into account, such as more women setting up entrepreneurial businesses, which tends to attract other women to join them. And there’s a lot of work going on to bring more young girls into tech and give them a viable way to start their careers. So I can see things shifting.
The tech industry has been wringing its hands over low levels of female representation in tech for more than 20 years. Women leaders are widely acknowledged to have an important role to play here, not least to act as role models to other more junior staff. So even at a time of D&I cost-cutting in the wake of widespread redundancies, focusing on effective succession planning and important culture-based issues, such as engagement and retention, would appear to be key.