The Extraordinary Exit of the Women of Silicon Valley

Susan Wojcicki is one of Google’s longest-serving employees and one of the highest-profile female executives in Silicon Valley.

(Bloomberg) — The resignation of YouTube chief Susan Wojcicki after 25 years at Google is another example of an unsettling trend in Silicon Valley: High profile women are heading for the exits.

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

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

Every company and every woman has their own story, but it’s no secret the pandemic was especially hard on women. By some estimates, some 2 million women left or lost their jobs between February 2020 and January 2022, while the number of men in the workforce remained about the same. Women leaders are also switching jobs at record rates according to a study by Lean In and McKinsey. In Silicon Valley, they are leaving their jobs, period.

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

Wojcicki vows she’s leaving her job but not disappearing entirely. “I’m committed to continuing to support women in tech in my next chapter,” she wrote in an email “I’m committed to mentoring women leaders and CEOs and investing in women-founded and led companies!”

But she’s clearly taking a big step aside. Wojcicki’s name was always the first to be floated in talks about who might succeed Alphabet Inc. CEO Sundar Pichai. Now that seems unlikely. Other prominent women who’ve left top tech jobs and receded from the spotlight include former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, former HP and Quibi CEO Meg Whitman and former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty. All were targeted with ferocious criticism for their job performance that at times could feel overly personal.

To many women in tech, it’s a concerning trend. “We have to figure out how to identify and support the next generation of women and minority leaders and make sure they don’t get discouraged,” says Aileen Lee, the founder of Cowboy Ventures, who is also a founding member of All Raise, a nonprofit aimed at getting more women into tech investing and entrepreneurship. “In this downturn, as companies are shedding rank and file, they are going to be increasingly lonely. It’s truly hard being the only. There’s an extra toll you take carrying that weight around your shoulders.”

For Sandberg, the bigger problem is there just aren’t enough women in top tech jobs. “The issue is not women leaving,” said Sandberg, who joined the Google ads division in 2001, when Wojcicki was running it. “The issue is that there are so few of us in the first place. No one writes articles that men are leaving senior jobs. People leave senior jobs all the time. But because there are so few women in senior leadership it is 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 mother to five children and has always been open about sharing her experience juggling the demands of her job with motherhood.

By any measure, she accomplished a lot. Some of the big ideas hatched under Wojcicki’s tenure at YouTube include launching YouTube TV, Premium and Shorts, cultivating a new generation of creators and crafting critical new policies around hate and misinformation. She also oversaw a video site that struggled with such toxicity, especially during the pandemic. Still, it’s an extraordinary legacy — and should serve as a rallying cry for more women leaders in technology, as well.

(Corrects spelling of Ginni Rometty in seventh paragraph.)

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