You might not have thought a lot about the position of chief operating officer before Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In drew national attention. With Lean In, Sandberg pointed to factors she sees as responsible for the lack of female leadership in business, while extending practical advice and encouragement for other women to follow in her footsteps. The book is not without criticism but Sandberg’s perspective is timely, as the number of female COOs in tech is growing. Though this is a huge step forward, there's concern that women seeking COO positions do so while limiting aspirations to climb even higher.
It’s not a hypothetical phenomenon. Stanford professor Robert Siegel has noticed it in the MBA classes he teaches at the Stanford Graduate School of Business — his female students tell him they want to be COOs, where the men say they aim to be CEOs.
The specific job description of the COO varies widely from company to company, depending on the needs of the organization as well as the strengths, weaknesses, and leadership style of the CEO. It generally implies oversight all of a company’s internal operations, functions, and programs. So why do women repeatedly tell Siegel that they prefer not to go for a CEO role? It's not just a case of simple second-class citizenship. Women often cite seemingly benign work preferences: an interest in internal issues over external ones, a desire to remain private, and the belief that they’d be more effective in a COO role.
Then there's the relatively recent breaking of the glass ceilling. Sandberg kicked off the coverage of tech COOs in the media, but she’s in good company with Everest’s Katherine Krug, Fab.com’s Beth Ferreira, and Startup America’s Kathleen Warner. Female leadership is reproducing itself by sending the message to women, "this is a space where you belong, too."
All the positive media coverage of female COOs is something we must approach with discernment — it’s in no one’s interest for women to receive more credit for their biology than for the their work.
To say that seeing a female COO is a positive step forward is not to suggest that any woman is inherently preferable to any man for the role, or to imply that all women (or all men) are the same. However, the absence of women in leadership roles in business has too often created an environment that is inhospitable to women, especially in tech.
The tech industry has recently been marred by scandals with a particularly misogynistic flavor — such as the showdown that began at the PyCon conference when a female SendGrid employee tweeted her discomfort with the sexual innuendos of two men near her that resulted in all three being fired. Facebook recently changed their policies after a deluge of criticism and an advertising boycott following their uninspiring, sluggish response to hateful and sexually violent posts about women. Then there's TechCrunch — a company that drew fire for sanitizing the account of a female Googler’s sexual assault by a male Twitter employee.
Though work culture is partially the culprit, female leadership will not solve all these problems. Sandberg was unable to foresee or prevent the outrage that hit Facebook during the #FBrape debacle. But having more women in leadership roles in tech — especially the COO, which often encompasses the HR function — can counteract some of the problematic boys’ club "brogrammer culture."
The tech industry has largely excelled by embracing the notion that it's important to disrupt everything about the business status quo — a college dropout may be more successful than someone with an MBA; a mobile app can generate more revenue than heavy weight software; you don't need a fancy dress code to be successful at a start-up. A new wave of women COOs naturally bring an outsider’s perspective to the tech industry.
Imagine the impact they could have as CEOs.