In Facebook’s early years, 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 — basically before we knew social media could really break things. Is. But the problem with breaking things up is that you eventually need someone to come along and clean up the mess.
Enter Sheryl Sandberg. Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has never hidden the fact that he handled “things I don’t want to do” with Sandberg as COO. This includes figuring out how the company will make money, but also serve as an antidote to his hoodie-wearing, college dropout. Fifteen years Zuckerberg’s senior, Sandberg literally and figuratively grew up in the living 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 parent company MetaPlatforms Inc. late last year, the first in a recent series of departures among senior women in tech and media that culminated in YouTube’s ce O’Susan Wojcicki and Vice Media Inc. CEO Nancy Dubic made the announcement last month. That they will be leaving their role. Without jumping into new high-profile gigs, they leave behind a complex legacy when it comes to women who lead the business world.
A key question is why the path for these high-achieving women, especially in the tech world, so often requires them to take on the role of adult. It is a label that denotes a certain type of executive. One who makes sure everyone is well behaved and on schedule, who brings stability and credibility — but not necessarily a big vision. For a generation of women, this may have been the only way in the door. But amid these recent departures, it’s time to examine how limiting the label can be in perpetuating the false image of women as imperfect leaders and relegating them to this kind of “household office work.” can be in shouldering with which is not career-advancing.
It comes down to this: If the default for men in tech is boy genius, for senior women — especially at the highest levels — it’s still often office mom. “It’s counterproductive,” Laura Cray, a professor of leadership at the Haas School of Business, told me. “It adds an extra layer of complexity to the job: Make us a bazillion dollars but be nice while you do it, and make us cookies, too.”
Take Dubuc, who joined The Voice from A+E Networks in 2018. At the time, the digital media startup was plagued by accusations 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, “growing up meant to steal the grumpy, skateboard-wielding whizzes whose first grown-ups There was very little supervision.” Never mind that in addition to changing the company’s culture, he was also tasked with the impossible task of turning around Vice’s finances and selling the company amid a struggling digital media industry.
Even Wojcicki, one of Google’s first employees who said in February that she would leave the company after 25 years, has called out all the things that point to adult surveillance — even if they’re older. Not to be pinned down because of: “non-threatening,” “the most measured person in technology,” “very normal, bordering on boring,” “less insightful than open-minded and analytical.” ” and “Mother of Google.” It doesn’t matter that he pushed the company to acquire YouTube and, as its CEO, turned it into a major streaming business (although that’s a problem). 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 said “Adult supervision is back at Google.” The piece, which mentioned “discipline” nine times, noted that Porat was perfect for the job because “Google was maturing and looking for more credibility with investors.”
One of the reasons for the rise of adult supervision in Silicon Valley was the rise of the God mentality as startup founders in the 2000s. The ethos was upheld by Andreessen Horowitz, whose venture capital firm built its reputation and business on the belief that founders should remain CEOs to uphold the company’s mission. But that often meant bringing in an experienced executive who could fill in all the gaps the inexperienced founder lacked — in other words, a Sheryl Sandberg.
This model has become so prevalent that Krista Quarles, CEO of the software company Alodo, told me that when she was looking to make her latest career move, she was surprised by the number of people who told her “Be Cheryl for someone. Marked.” They wanted him to be a CEO without title, economics, or moral authority. “I don’t know how many men they must have said that to,” she told me. (It’s worth noting that even though Schmidt seems to accept his duties as an adult supervisor at Google, he at least got to be CEO.)
Chief operating officer then 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 article in Fortune. It is stated. Gallagher questioned whether the influx of female COOs would lead to a new generation of female CEOs, or instead lead to her own kind of glass ceiling — “a position from which Successful female leaders have fueled industry growth, a sustained supporting role without entering the CEO boys club.
I followed up on COOs Gallagher’s mention and, so far at least, the latter appears to be true. Fewer have moved into chief executive roles. Not even Sandberg, whose name was at one time tossed around as a possible contender to lead the likes of The Walt Disney Company or even as a presidential candidate. No one seems to talk about these options for him anymore. It’s still possible she’ll pop up as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. But it’s just as likely that she’s been heavily tainted by the meta-scandals that, yes, in many cases she helped create, but was mainly responsible for cleaning up.
If the tech world’s answer to this dilemma is that women should just start and run their own companies, they might actually want to start investing in them. Last year, startups founded by women accounted for 1.9 percent of all venture capital funding. However, there are signs that the old pattern of not replacing the founder with more experienced leadership is finally starting to break. Jana Rich, CEO and founder of executive search firm Rich Talent Group, told me she’s never seen so much CEO recruiting activity. It could finally mean a new way for women to get to the corner office that doesn’t require the baggage that comes with being labeled a grown-up. If it does, it could finally be a sign that Silicon Valley is thriving.
Beth Kovit is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering corporate America. She was previously a senior writer and editor at Fortune magazine.