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Will the COO role produce the next crop of female CEOs?

Nov 04, 2014

What is it about the COO role in technology companies? It’s long been a spot that has drawn prominent women—witness last week’s news that Google’s (goog) Claire Hughes Johnson—the veteran executive who was most recently vice president of Google [x], leading the high profile self-driving cars team—was leaving to become chief operating officer of payment startup Stripe. Late last year, Emily White, who had been director of business operations at Instagram, left to take the COO role at Snapchat. And of course, there is Sheryl Sandberg, who made her mark as, launched her Lean In message from, and still holds the position of COO at Facebook (fb).

Turns out there is a thing happening here (NPR called it the ‘Sheryl Sandberg effect’). The list of women COOs in the tech world—typically but not always supporting male CEOs—is long. There’s Varsha Rao, head of global operations at Airbnb. Sarah Friar, CFO and operations lead at Square. Pam Murphy at Infor. Sharon Feder at Mashable. Until recently, Beth Ferreira at Fab.com (and before that, VP of operations at Etsy) . Some women COOs serve women CEOs: Tracey Weber at Gilt, Stacy Brown-Philpot at TaskRabbit, Alexandra Cavoulacos at The Muse. Beth Kaplan, former president of GNC, is both president and COO at Rent the Runway.

What’s the deal? Do young, brainy coder-founders need the wisdom of a grown up to help keep the shop together—and figure out a business model? If that’s the case, why does it so often seem to fall on women to fill that role? One explanation may be that a man senior enough to take the role might not settle for a No. 2 (see “male, overconfident” in the aforementioned Sandberg book). It could be that there is a bit of a maternal aspect to the role—savvy, more seasoned women executives helping take the yearling techie through business adolescence, then into adulthood. Or it could be much more straightforward: that these women just have the right combination of business chops, operating experience and leadership—plus the confidence and willingness to cede the stage to someone else.

The role is becoming more visible, especially in the tech industry. For the people who hold the spot, it’s a plum C-suite job that comes with the opportunity to steer a company through a critical phase, be involved in every aspect of the business, and make a lasting mark. Often times, the COOs are the monetizers, arguably the most important executive role in today’s environment where funding is frothy but profits often evasive.

I also like to think the recent surge of women COOs at high profile tech cos (the majority of the above names took the roles in the past year) foretells something else: the slow, measured building of a healthy pipeline for future women CEOs.

That’s what happened a few weeks ago when Lisa Su, former COO of AMD (amd), was named the company’s CEO (making her the 26th woman to run a Fortune 500 company). Sheryl Sandberg’s next move is expected to be either a shift into politics or a transition into a CEO role. And the number one company on the Fortune 500 has a woman in a COO role: Gisel Ruiz is EVP and the COO of Walmart U.S.

This is also probably a reflection of the same trend driving more and more women to the top Fortune 500 companies: women’s broader ascension throughout the ranks of the business world, especially in the tech sector where the ratio has been imbalanced. Expect to see more of it.

So much more, in fact, that I’m going to start building a list. These are good women for us to have our eye on. Who am I missing? Let me know at leigh_gallagher@fortune.com.

“From the MPW Co-chairs” is a series where the editors who oversee the Fortune Most Powerful Women brand share their insights about women leaders.

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