What do Belinda Johnson at Airbnb, Jennifer Berrent at WeWork, Maëlle Gavet at real estate and technology firm Compass and Sara Clemens at video-streaming platform Twitch have in common? They’ve all been appointed chief operating officer (COO) at a thriving tech company within the past year. And they represent just a sliver of a growing crop of female COOs taking America’s fastest-growing industry by storm.
Fortune’s assistant managing editor Leigh Gallagher recently joined Morning Joe co-anchor and Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski to discuss the rise of female COOs in tech—also known as women “seconds-in-command”—and to share her insight about what this female leadership trend could mean for the future of gender parity… and where it could fall short.
Traditionally, in many Fortune 500 companies, the COO role is a position of high seniority that touches all parts of the business and provides a clear pathway to the No. 1 job, the CEO (chief executive officer). But in the booming tech industry, the female COO’s path to succession remains uncharted. “Will the current wave of women COOs in tech give rise to a new, more robust pipeline of female chief-executive candidates, teed up to take top spots of their own?” Gallagher asked in her feature article on this topic for Fortune. “Or does the COO role risk becoming a glass ceiling in itself—a position from which accomplished women leaders stoke the industry’s growth, in a perpetual supporting role, without breaking into the CEO boys’ club?”
Speculating can be tricky, particularly due to the nature of the COO role. “The No. 2 position, male or female, is very often a behind-the-scenes role; the COO does the inside work, the unglamorous stuff, so that the CEO can shine and be external and set the vision,” Gallagher told Brzezinski on the set of Morning Joe.
That said, despite the trend toward a higher number of female COOs in tech, the role is still predominantly male. In her article, Gallagher noted, “Among the 50 highest-valued privately held ‘unicorn’ companies, for example, of those with COOs, 70% have men in the post, 30% women.”
For some women, the supporting COO role could provide just the right path to make an impact. A 2017 Korn Ferry study called Women CEOs Speak revealed that out of 57 current and former female CEOs, only 12 percent thought they wanted to be a CEO. “More than half of them had to be asked or tapped on the shoulder,” Gallagher told Brzezinski.
Of course, there are some contrarians to the female COO set. Sheryl Sandberg, who left Google a decade ago to become Facebook’s COO, is “a perfect example of a model COO,” Gallagher said. Sandberg is side-by-side with Mark Zuckerberg and is arguably the spark that started this movement, she explained.
Gallagher encourages women COOs to double down on the leadership skills that got them to where they are today. She suggested that they get out there and make a name for themselves. Essentially, they should aspire to become a face for the brand. “Try to have a say in the vision,” Gallagher encouraged. “Make the decisions that really guide the company rather than just executing.”
Women leaders bring many positive attributes to the table, from being strategic risk-takers to demonstrating emotional intelligence and leading with consensus building.
The fact that this C-suite shift is happening for women is promising, but only time will tell where it will lead. “Will we see more women on the very top? I think we all agree that’s what the world needs,” Gallagher said.