I have noticed an interesting trend and I have no idea what to make of it.
At some level, I feel unqualified to render an opinion on the topic given my gender.
But I can raise a unique observation.
First, some context: With all of the recent discussions and, in some instances, backlash about the new policy at Yahoo! from Marissa Mayer requiring people to work in the office, and while noticing some of the heat against Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, I am reminded of the many issues around work/life balance that women, and to a lesser extent men, have to deal with in balancing the attainment of a hard driving career while simultaneously doing an “adequate” job of raising a family. I’ve heard this discussion for at least two decades through my colleagues at work, and I even recall Carol Bartz telling us at Stanford in 1993 that, “Balance is a myth” – you can’t simultaneously have a career as a CEO and also extended time with the family simultaneously. (This theme was recently raised again by Chris Shipley here.)
I’ve personally lived through this issue as my wife had a very successful 25+ year career as a technology executive before she stopped working right before we had our third child. We have wrestled with the challenge of a talented tech executive putting our family first, and the ambivalence of her choosing to give up a full-time career at which she both excelled and enjoyed.
Now for the observation: In the last three months I have had several of my female students or recent female graduates from the Stanford Graduate School of Business tell me that their long-term career aspiration is to be a COO.
What’s odd is that I never hear that from young male students.
The men almost always want to be a CEO.
And yet the COO answer keeps coming up repeatedly with the women.
When I ask these bright, talented and capable women why they don’t want to be CEO of a company, I get squishy answers. They don’t want to deal with external issues. They like internal challenges. They like operations and don’t want to put themselves “out there.” They think a COO role is where they will be the most effective.
What I am seeking to understand is why this has become a sudden trend and is now a career goal that I am hearing repeatedly. And is this observation tied in to the recent controversies surrounding Marissa and Sheryl?
Is it because there are now good female role models in the COO position (e.g. Sheryl Sandberg)?
Is it because, as highlighted above, women get ripped apart once they ascend to the public eye?
And is that last question even true? Are Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg really treated more harshly/put under more scrutiny than other tech leaders such as Bill Gates was when he was running Microsoft, than Eric Schmidt and Larry Page when they ran/run Google, or than Jack Welch was he ran GE (they called him Neutron Jack in the early days)?
Is the desire to be a COO genetic disposition/difference between men and women that the former want to lead out in front and the latter want to nurture?
What do you think?