In the past few months, as Uber sputtered and veered off the road in a scandal-ridden pileup, the fast-moving ride-hailing firm has hired or featured one woman after another as it tries to keep from totaling its image.
Liane Hornsey, Uber's human resources executive who started in January after coming from Google, was front and center as the company dealt with allegations by an engineer about a toxic culture that was permissive of sexual harassment. Director Arianna Huffington has been the most visible spokeswoman for the board. The two big hires the company made in recent weeks as it tries to fill its hollowed-out executive ranks — Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei and former Apple marketing executive Bozoma Saint John — are women, as is one of its new additions to the board, Nestlé executive Wan Ling Martello.
So now that chief executive Travis Kalanick has resigned, should a woman replace him, too?
Right now, the question is just one in a wildly speculative parlor game over whom Uber's next CEO might be. For the most part, the answer involves little more than guesswork and rumors over who might take on the monumental job of not only repairing the company's culture but also holding off growing competition, an exodus of leaders and a string of controversies that include a trade secrets lawsuit and a federal inquiry into its use of a software tool.
Of course, the top skills Uber's next CEO will need — things like experience running a fast-growing firm, the ability to talk to investors as it heads toward an expected IPO and the wherewithal to navigate a company where its competitive founder remains on the board — will be paramount.
But the gender question is interesting to consider in this case. A company rocked with sexual harassment allegations and in need of overhauling a macho culture could send a loud signal by naming an experienced woman to the top job. Peter Crist, managing director of the executive search firm Crist Kolder Associates, said talk that a female CEO could depolarize the situation "isn't a bad premise:" "A really talented, accomplished woman in the chair would do a whole lot to move the cultural dial."
Indeed, one of the recommendations Uber said it would implement from the report by the law firm Covington & Burling suggested it hire a diverse candidate as chief operating officer, which could mean a woman. Now that Kalanick has resigned, it's possible some of those COO candidates might be considered for the top gig.
Michelle Ryan, a professor at the University of Exeter, said in an interview that when she started reading about the idea of a woman taking over for Kalanick, "I was just like, that's got 'glass cliff' written all over it," referring to the term she and a colleague coined about how women appear to be disproportionately chosen for challenging leadership jobs. Yet because it's more than just a company facing a series of crises, and one needing an overhaul of its macho culture, she said naming a woman could send a powerful message.
"It signals to everyone 'we hear you and we want to change,' " she said. "There is some sort of validity there, which also potentially masks the 'glass cliff' phenomenon."
So which names have come up? Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer at Facebook, is a name that many, many media reports have speculated about. And indeed, she ticks some key boxes: She's held the No. 2 job at a fast-growing tech firm and was brought in to run the business and help its founder as Facebook began to mature. She was an executive when Facebook went public, something Uber is expected to do. And of course, the "Lean In" author is one of the most outspoken and authoritative voices for gender equality in the workplace.
Another name that's shown up several times: Meg Whitman, the CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise. She offers the experience of running not one but two tech companies — eBay, where she led and scaled up a previously founder-led business, and Hewlett Packard, which she came in to turn around and has split into two. (She now runs the enterprise business.) But again, Whitman seems unlikely to take it: A spokeswoman told the Wall Street Journal Whitman was "fully committed to HPE."
Tech publication Recode suggested Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, saying "there's little doubt about her qualifications," even if the long-time Google employee remains "a shot in the dark." She's led Google's acquisition of YouTube and efforts to turn the massive video site into a viable business. She's also been outspoken about gender issues in the workplace, writing op-eds about paid leave and "How to break up the Silicon Valley boy's club."
Plenty of other names have bandied about. Some have questioned whether Huffington might take the job, but a spokeswoman told the Associated Press she has no interest. The Wall Street Journal reported in April that Karenann Terrell, former chief information officer of Wal-Mart Stores, and Helena Foulkes, an executive vice president of CVS Health, had interviewed for the chief operating officer job, though it also reported Foulkes was no longer in discussions with Uber.
In a CNBC interview last week before Kalanick's resignation — and the same day General Electric's succession plan was announced — Carnegie Mellon professor Vivek Wadhwa suggested Beth Comstock, the GE vice chair who leads the company's new growth areas and has run its lighting business, as well as marketing and communications.
And since the topic is a Silicon Valley tech company and female leaders, there's another name that's of course been thrown in the mix: Former Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer. After all, she's now available.