The Extraordinary Exit of the Women of Silicon Valley

(Bloomberg) — The resignation of YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki after 25 years at Google is another example of a troubling trend in Silicon Valley: High-profile women are heading for exit.

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Just this week, Marne Levine, chief business officer of Meta Platforms Inc., stepped down after 12 years at the social media juggernaut. Last year, Sheryl Sandberg left her role as Meta’s chief operating officer.

Of course, powerful female figures remain in tech, but they tend to have a lower public profile. Safra Catz, Oracle Corp.’s chief executive officer, rarely gives interviews. Meta’s chief financial officer, Susan Li, has yet to give an interview, although she was only promoted to the role last November. Lisa Jackson is one of five women on Apple’s executive team, compared to 13 men. A notable exception is Lisa Su, CEO of Advanced Micro Devices Inc., who now frequently speaks to the press about companies’ earnings reports and launches.

Every company and every woman has their own story, but it’s no secret that the pandemic has hit women particularly hard. According to some estimates, between February 2020 and January 2022, around 2 million women left or lost their jobs, while the number of employed men remained roughly the same. According to a study by Lean In and McKinsey, female managers are also changing jobs at record speed. In Silicon Valley, they’re quitting their jobs, period.

Wojcicki spent nine years at the helm of YouTube, an incredibly long tenure for any CEO in Silicon Valley, especially for a non-founder. During her tenure as CEO of YouTube, she grew revenue to $29 billion and active users to well over 2.5 billion. Prior to that, she helped build and maintain Google’s now-dominant advertising business.

Wojcicki swears she’s quitting her job, but won’t disappear entirely. “I’m committed to supporting women in tech in my next chapter as well,” she wrote in an email. “I’m committed to mentoring women leaders and CEOs and investing in companies founded and led by women!”

But she’s clearly taking a big step aside. Wojcicki’s name has always been the first to pop up in talks about who might succeed Alphabet Inc. CEO Sundar Pichai. That now seems unlikely. Other prominent women who have quit top tech jobs and stepped away from the spotlight include former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, former HP and Quibi CEO Meg Whitman, and former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty. All faced severe criticism for their job performance, which at times could feel overly personal.

This is a worrying trend for many women in tech. “We need to figure out how to identify and support the next generation of women and minority leaders and make sure they don’t get discouraged,” said Aileen Lee, founder of Cowboy Ventures, who is also a founding member of All Raise. a non-profit organization that aims to attract more women to invest in technology and entrepreneurship. “In this downturn, businesses will be increasingly lonely as businesses lose their footing. It’s really hard to be the only one. It’s an added toll when you carry that weight on your shoulders.”

For Sandberg, the bigger problem is that there just aren’t enough women in top tech jobs. “The problem isn’t that women are leaving,” said Sandberg, who joined the Google Ads department in 2001 when Wojcicki ran it. “The problem is that we are so few in the first place. Nobody writes articles about men leaving senior positions. People are leaving managerial positions all the time. But because there are so few women in leadership positions, it’s all the more remarkable when that happens. We have to make the extraordinary ordinary.”

Wojcicki says she left her role for personal reasons. In her blog post, she said she is starting a new chapter focused on her family, health and passion projects. She is also a mother of five and has always openly shared her experience of balancing the demands of her job with motherhood.

In any case, she has achieved a lot. Some of the big ideas developed during Wojcicki’s tenure at YouTube include launching YouTube TV, Premium and Shorts, nurturing a new generation of YouTubers, and crafting critical new policies on hate and misinformation. She also oversaw a video site that has been struggling with such toxicity, especially during the pandemic. Still, it’s an extraordinary legacy – and should also serve as a rallying cry for more women leaders in technology.

(Corrects the spelling of Ginni Rometty in the seventh paragraph.)

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