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The “Lean In” era is over

The “Lean In” era is over

Thu, 16 Mar 2023 18:00

Execs like YouTube’s Susan Wojcicki and Meta’s Sheryl Sandberg paved the way for women in tech. Now they’re leaving the industry — and being replaced by men. This episode was produced by Amanda Lewellyn, edited and fact-checked by Matt Collette with additional fact help from Victoria Chamberlin, engineered by Patrick Boyd, and hosted by Noel King. Transcript at Support Today, Explained by making a financial contribution to Vox! Learn more about your ad choices. Visit

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Mark Zuckerberg announced this week that meta is going to lay off around 10,000 people and will not fill 5,000 open positions in a quest to make 2023 his words, a year of efficiency. It's a year of something else, too. Two high-profile departures in the past few months, YouTube CEO Susan Wajewski and Cheryl Sandberg, the former CEO of meta, mean there are currently no women leading big tech companies, big tech defined as MANG or meta-appel-amazon, Netflix and Google. What is going on here? Susan Wajewski was at Google since Google was in a garage. It was her garage and Cheryl. Do not lean back lean in. Sandberg? She wrote the book and the TED talk on women leaders in tech. Coming up on today explained as Silicon Valley cuts jobs is the era of lean in finally over. It's today explained I'm Noel King and we're going to start with the story of YouTube's former CEO Susan Wajewski. Peter Kafka is a senior correspondent at Vox, he covers media and technology and so he knows Susan Wajewski has been covering her for years now, beginning with her earliest days at Google. Susan Wajewski's history with Google goes back to its founding. She famously rented out the garage of her Silicon Valley house to Larry Page and Sergey Brynn. The idea of people starting a company in a garage in Silicon Valley is a cliche and usually isn't true, but this one is true. I bought a house and houses are really expensive in Silicon Valley and I was a student and so I wanted someone to help me pay the mortgage. When she joined a year later after renting out the garage became the 16th employee at Google. If you don't think about how big Google is and how much money the people who started at Google made, you can both understand that she's made a lot of money in her career and also that she's had a lot of influence at that company if she's there at the start. You were Google's 16th employee, first marketing manager, you worked on Google doodles, Google images, Google books, you built the ad business, how many hats have you worn in 18 years? You know, I think when you join a startup you just sort of have to be willing to do whatever the startup needs you to do. So Google's main money machine is something called ad words, that's when you go and type a query into Google and it spits out results. People are bidding on those results, she didn't create that but she built out a significant chunk of the rest of Google's ads business, the split ads when you go to another website that isn't Google. You see an ad served up by Google, she built that out in large part. It's a huge business. From 2015 until 2021, every second dollar spent on online ads was spent on Google and Meta. Google earned $209 billion in ad revenue in 2021 alone making it the largest advertising company in the world. In 2014, she became CEO of YouTube and at the time it was a big business, it was probably about a $5 billion business but it still was a side light for Google and it wasn't really clear how YouTube fit into Google, they'd bought it a decade earlier, not quite for $1.65 billion. It's a huge thing in the internet, a huge thing in video. It wasn't quite clear how seriously Google took it and I think by moving her in there because she was a respected executive, the time that was them saying we think this business can get a lot bigger, we think it could be good to be run by someone with real business and advertising experience and she was that person. Why was she so good at it? What did she do exactly? There's a couple different things. First of all, the guy who'd run YouTube before Susan Wajewski had been I think the ninth employee at Google and he's a classic Googler. He is an engineer by trade, classically not a glad hander didn't really want to look at you, rather look at a laptop. I had that experience a few times. Just not someone that is going to spend a lot of time interfacing with people who buy and sell advertising, people who create videos and I pulled them to YouTube, not that guy. Susan Wajewski by Hollywood or New York media standards also, not a dazzling, sparkling personality, but by Google standards, she's a pretty media savvy person and is happy or at least willing to go talk to advertisers, to go to New York and talk to publishers and crucially to be the face of YouTube to its creators which became an increasingly important role. Good evening, VidCon. It is great to be here and to see everyone. What kinds of policies did you institute at YouTube? The main thing she had to do was sort of handle YouTube which is this really unruly beast. Anyone can upload a video to YouTube and early in YouTube's career they made an important policy decision which said, look if you upload video to YouTube and we sell advertising against it, we're going to give you about half that money. It was a big deal. It remains a big deal. It's still really the only company that allows creators to do that directly which is why a lot of creators still are making stuff for YouTube instead of TikTok or Instagram. Even though those sites may be busier or have more reach in certain places, creators who were never going to make money some other ways are suddenly dependent on YouTube. It's sort of a bleak algorithm to figure out whether they're making money or not. Then people started using YouTube too. It happens with any platform or any size on the internet. If you can upload stuff, people are going to upload unpleasant stuff. It created something called the ad apocalypse in 2017, 2018. Some inflammatory articles are posted about how major brands are being advertised on top of very vile YouTube videos. Bunch of advertisers fearing backlash, remove their ads entirely from YouTube. During this period, every YouTuber saw a decrease in revenue. In that case, it was a big enough furor that advertisers boycotted YouTube temporarily and she had to negotiate all of that as well. I think the creator community send up as an understand some of the fragility with the advertisers and we've been working really, really hard to bring back all of our advertisers after brand safety and make sure they feel confident and keep spending. What do you think her legacy is going to be? I mean, to put it in business terms, that's the ones that I'm in some ways most comfortable talking about. It's probably a $5 billion business when she took it over and it's a $29 billion business. Now, it's a big enough business that Google, and this is for accounting nerd, breaks out the business when it talks to Wall Street and says, this is a big important part of our business. This is a 10% of our business that didn't happen for a long time, but it's something now that when it wants to tell Wall Street, this is how well we're doing the point to YouTube and the growth they're doing there. And again, it's easy to dismiss YouTube or ignore it, especially if you're an older person who isn't spending a lot of time on the internet. It's incredibly important, culturally. I think it's really overlooked by a lot of people. It's the biggest video site in the world. It's the second largest surgeon in the world. For a lot of people, YouTube is the internet. And Susan Mangeski ran YouTube for nine years. Why is she stepping away? She put out a memo to the staff, which was then obviously then reproduced around the world. She's leaving for family, health, and personal projects. Two of those words are sort of standard when people leave a company and go on to do something else. Generally, they don't mention health, so you can draw an inference from that if you want beyond that. Okay, so who's going to replace her? Who is this woman who's replacing her? It's a man. No. Peter, I'm sorry, I'm kidding. Go ahead. Who is this fellow? This fellow is named Neil Mohan. It's great to be back at VidCon to celebrate its 10th anniversary with all of you here. Think of him as the vice president to Susan Mgeski's president. They have a long, long relationship. And Neil Mohan helped build that ad business with Susan Mgeski at Google. And about a year after she came to run YouTube, she brought him on. And it's basically her number two. Like Susan Mgeski, this is someone who's comfortable with the advertising and media part of the business, which is crucial. Everything we do is aimed at lifting up our creators and helping them achieve their dreams. We want to spark opportunity in a way only YouTube can. How big a moment is Susan Mgeski's departure for this company? You never know, but it's hard to imagine that Neil Mohan is going to run the business in a significantly different way than Susan Mgeski did. But she's one of the very few women in leadership in Silicon Valley. And I think the significance of her leaving in that context, if you look, is that there are so few women in positions of power in tech that when Susan Mgeski leaves, their ranks get significantly smaller. If you have a club, there's only three or four people in it and one leaves that club is a lot smaller. We double this all the time when we have conferences over at Recode and all things digital. You know, you can get Cheryl Sandberg from Facebook to show up. Do not lean back lean in. And you get Susan Mgeski to show up from YouTube. And there weren't a lot of other women you could get on stage ahead, significant equivalent positions of power. Now both of those women no longer work with those companies. Is there something broader happening in the tech industry? I mean, you name two women there. Is there a larger trend where women are pulling back? I think the thing to ask is why aren't there more women available to succeed a Cheryl Sandberg or Susan Mgeski? That's an open question. We are going to try to answer that open question ahead on today's explained. If there's one company whose jingles have burned themselves into my brain, that company is Coca-Cola. But that's not the only thing they burn. No indeed. Coca-Cola actually contracts with a chemical company in New Jersey to burn piles of cocaine. That's right. Cocaine. Turns out that Coke's famous secret formula is a lot weirder than you can imagine. On the latest episode of Gastropod, we've got this group on the world's favorite beverage plus the backstory of the drug-addicted pharmacist to invented it. Find Gastropod and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Your ultimate goal is to convince them that they've milked you for everything you're worth. From wadow scams to black market bourbon to the accidental death of a rare and beautiful fish, we bring you stories about the most curious crimes around. Remember the unexpected side of true crime. Listen to criminal wherever you get your podcasts. It's today explained we're back. Naomi Nyx is a reporter for the Washington Post. Naomi covers social media companies and lately, as you might expect, she's been covering layoffs at social media companies. She's gathered some data that shows those layoffs are hitting women and people of color harder than they are men and white employees. Earlier in the show, Peter was telling us that it's not like we've seen dozens of women leave top jobs in tech because there are not dozens of women in top jobs in tech. There are just a few. After Marissa Mayer left her post as CEO of Yahoo in 2017, Susan Wajeski at YouTube and Sheryl Sandberg at Metta were the two big names in big tech, capital B, capital T, just a handful of companies. All three of them had really built their early careers and their early success in the late 1990s and early 20s as they got started at Google. They were able to build these early careers. Sheryl, in online advertising and sales, Marissa was a top product person at Google and Susan obviously worked her way up to the top of YouTube. Now that generation has largely left. Naomi says as leaders, Wajeski in Sandberg had some things in common, but ultimately they used their power and influence differently. They were someone that they were running similar types of businesses. They both ran companies at a time in which there really was a sea change politically for social media in general. They both had to take on this other role of being the face of how the company was handling some of these thorny public policy issues like misinformation and political polarization. And I am so sorry that we let so many people down. But Sheryl took on a kind of bolder, higher profile role in terms of championing women. Because she essentially pushed into the forefront of her lean in philosophy. It was a kind of brand of corporate feminism which encouraged women to consider getting more ambitious and to raise your hand at new opportunities even in your personal life and your dating life. Like evaluate, like is this person that helped your career? Studies show that households with equal earning and equal responsibility also have half the divorce rate. And if that wasn't good enough motivation for everyone out there, they also have more, how shall I say this on this stage? They know each other more in the biblical sense as well. And that brand of sort of corporate feminism turned into a book, it turned into a nonprofit. She did a famous TED Talk. Your job needs to be challenging. It needs to be rewarding. You need to feel like you're making a difference. And if two years ago you didn't take a promotion and some guy next to you did, if three years ago you stopped looking for new opportunities, you're going to be bored because you should have kept your foot on the gas pedal. There was some backlash to that, right? Like very early on there were critiques. People said she left out women of color in the sort of unique pressures that women of color face. There was also criticism that she put too much on us on individual women and not enough on the system. But still, that brand of feminism, it affected how she talked about Facebook's policies. We offer benefits for all life stages and really generous benefits. We don't just try to follow the market, we try to follow our employees. So we offer four months of maternity and paternity leave. You can take it any time in the first year. We give you cash when you have a baby, whether you adopt or you give birth. And she envisioned them as something that would encourage other companies to adopt friendlier workplace policies in order to be more inclusive to women. We talk about these women leaving their jobs. Notably, they're not getting fired, they're not passing away in the CEO chair, they are quitting. What are the reasons they're giving and do you see similarities there? So in the case of Susan and Cheryl, they both stated they want to spend more time with their family. Susan also mentioned there were some health reasons at play. I think it's notable though that in all three cases really, even for sort of including Marissa, that they left their businesses at a time when there was a lot of dress on the business itself. Meta is cutting about 13% of its workforce in the largest wave of layoffs in the tech giants history. If you look at Google, YouTube has made its first quarterly decline in advertising revenue in its whole existence. They're both grappling with these really unprecedented market pressures and they left right. They left in a moment when the business was weaker than it had been in a very, very long time. And while they weren't formally or publicly pushed out, it does sort of raise questions about are there unique pressures on top female executives when the economic going gets tough? When you talk to your sources in the tech world, is there a sense that women cannot win in tech or has that time period passed? People definitely still raise questions about the pressures facing women in technology. I mean, these places are very male dominated and women are often relegated to roles that aren't seen as economically important, which means ultimately their work by and large isn't valued. For instance, during the pandemic, actually, many of the companies, A, started offering more generous, flexible work arrangements that allowed them to recruit more women and people of color. As we consider remote work, which has been accelerated through this crisis, we're looking at what are the opportunities now to have people working in cities where we didn't have offices before, but which could increase our diversity. Because one of the issues is that Silicon Valley is not very diverse. You saw Facebook and Twitter actively actually say they have had more success in diversity during the pandemic because they could recruit outside Silicon Valley. What we know is that works to increase representation. For instance, since we've done it, we've increased the number of black women we've hired by 40 eggs. Now you have this new crop of women and people of color entering these companies with a lot of hope and optimism about the kind of career that they can build. Then when the going gets tough and the tech companies decide to lay people off, the initial evidence suggests that they're weighing off the people who are newer to the company, last in, first out, which research suggests hurts diversity. They're weighing off people who occupy particular roles that they consider less necessary. They're human resources managers, your marketers, people outside the core engineering tech focus on the roles. That means women and that means people of color. Are there other women in tech who are replacing Cheryl Sandberg in that role of ensuring that the pipeline problems are acknowledged, ensuring that the pipeline remains open? Who do we look to now? There's no next Cheryl. There's no one I think that has taken on that mantle with such public force. It's really taken the risk to their personal profiles by talking about it. When they're judged on lost, they're not being judged on diversity. I don't know that Cheryl's message as it currently stands would have the same reception now that it did back then because the economic and political situations have changed. When companies are weighing off thousands of their workers, being told that you just have to work harder to obtain power at these companies, it's not going to work. A message of you just need to raise your hand a little higher isn't necessarily going to translate, right? I think we even saw this internally, like after some of these leaders, including Mark Zuckerberg, started to offer messages about how essentially the boom times are over. Zuckerberg calling the current downturn the worst he's seen in recent history, company is, quote, turning up the heat on existing staff, unable to meet more aggressive goals. Zuckerberg telling his employees, quote, realistically, there are probably a bunch of people at the company who shouldn't be here. He plays at some of these companies. We're kind of like, hey, we've been working hard and we've been working hard during a pandemic. That was actually a really difficult thing and being told is women who are juggling, taking care of their kids and loved ones while working from home and are trying to keep all the balls in the air, like they don't want to be told that the problem is them when they're so clearly other barriers at work. In terms of potential bright spots, I mean, like there's still women leaders, Safra Katz is the CEO of Oracle, a big software company that's, you know, maybe less well known to everyday people, but is actually still a pretty big tech company. I think V-PAPAS, the chief Aberdeen officer of TikTok, is actually perhaps one of the more interesting leaders in the technology industry right now. V recently came out as non-binary and when they did, they took the moment to say that they wanted to bring their whole self to the role. And so I think it would be really interesting if we were to see more from them about the need to champion diversity and the workplace. Let me ask you lastly about the stakes here. We know that these tech companies are now laser focused on things like artificial intelligence, the metaverse. What could a lack of women at the top or even at the start of the pipeline mean for the products that these companies build and these products that we use? I mean, it's a well known fact that women are more likely to suffer harassment on certain social media sites. If there aren't people who care about that, working on policies and new product interventions to protect people who are facing harassment, then ultimately large swaths of the population suffer the consequences. A new report from Amnesty International says Twitter is not respecting the rights of women. The report says women are often threatened on Twitter. And then even though the company's policies prohibit abuse, the social media platform is not providing, quote, adequate remedies for the victims of those threats. You know, artificial intelligence, and particularly generative AI that companies are focused on right now, has already been reports about the potential for racism and bigotry and bias to come through and some of these new products. One UC Berkeley professor was able to trick chat GPT to write a piece of code to check if someone would be a good scientist based on their race and gender. A good scientist that found was white and male. If there aren't people who care about those issues as they're being developed and generated, it's going to be a harder road to make sure that their services are treating people equally. The other thing I would just highlight is economic opportunity. The Welfcapp Stugs exist. And tech companies are, look, they have high salaries. They are a way to get a piece of a very still lucrative pie. And if women and people of color are shut out of those opportunities, that's just one less place they get to go to help advance their economic empowerment. Today's show was produced by Amanda Luellen and edited by Matthew Colette. They was engineered by Patrick Boyd and fact checked by Laura Bullard and Victoria Chamberlain. I'm Noelle King. Thanks for today, explained.