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Microsoft’s Peggy Johnson claims a spot on the tech industry’s glass cliff

July 7, 2020, 6:09 PM UTC

Peggy Johnson, formerly Microsoft’s head of business development, has been named CEO of augmented-reality startup Magic Leap. The move was announced Tuesday, with Johnson starting in her new role in August.

Johnson, who spent more than two decades at Qualcomm before joining Microsoft in 2014, is perhaps best known for spearheading the Seattle giant’s $26.2 billion purchase of LinkedIn—still its largest-ever acquisition.

The announcement has already garnered attention in tech circles, due largely to the industry’s fascination with Magic Leap. The startup, founded a decade ago, has raised nearly $3.5 billion in funding and been the subject of much hype and speculation. Yet it didn’t release its first augmented-reality headset until 2018, and even then the product posted disappointing sales. The company has since revised its strategy—pivoting from consumers to businesses—but it’s far from clear that the shift will solve Magic Leap’s problems.

In an interview with the New York Times, Johnson said that becoming a CEO has been a longtime professional goal. “I chose this,” she told the Times. “It really says something that at this point in time I would leave Microsoft to go to this space, because Microsoft is doing quite well.”

The Times story also makes mention of the “glass cliff”—the phenomenon in which women and BIPOC are given a shot at a top job only when the company is crisis, and therefore face much slimmer odds of success.

Johnson’s aspiration to the corner office adds context to her decision to step into the role at Magic Leap—cliff or not. While women are dramatically underrepresented in CEO jobs across industries, the dearth of female chiefs is particularly acute in technology. There are currently just four women at the head of Fortune 500 tech companies: AMD’s Lisa Su, Oracle’s Safra Catz, CDW’s Christine Leahy, and SAIC’s Nazzic Keene. They’re significantly outnumbered by women leading companies in sectors like retail and financial services, and account for 0.8% of all Fortune 500 CEOs. The tech industry, meanwhile, accounts for nearly 9% of the list. (Looking beyond the CEO role, it’s also notable that Johnson’s departure will leave Microsoft’s executive team with two female members.)

The situation isn’t much better in the startup world. According to 2019 Crunchbase data published in Fast Company, female-led companies make up less than 3% of artificial intelligence, 1.8% of robotics, and 1.2% of wireless startups.

As the statistics show, the odds that a female executive will find herself with the opportunity to run a “hard tech” company are vanishingly low. For those with the ambition to hold such a job, the type of risky, well, leap Johnson is about to take may be price of admission.