Meg Whitman is stepping down on her own terms after six years at the helm of a prominent American technology company and 35 years in the business world.

The Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. (HPE) Chief Executive Officer announced on Tuesday that she will step down effective Feb. 1, 2018, and HPE President Antonio Neri will succeed her. Whitman, 61, will remain a director on HPE's board.

"It has been the privilege of a lifetime to lead the company founded by Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard," Whitman said during a conference call with analysts. "We've laid out a strong foundation for a prosperous future, and now is the right time for Antonio and a new generation of leaders to take the reins."

Whitman's departure surprised some analysts but they were largely positive on Neri's appointment.

"We believe Mr. Neri's experience running the Enterprise Group makes him a strong fit for the current HPE," wrote BMO Capital Markets analyst Tim Long in a research note on Wednesday. "That said, we are surprised by the timing of the CEO transition given commentary at the recent analyst day that seemed to imply a CEO transition was not in the offing."

"We see this as a positive step forward as the uncertainty related to her tenure and the future of the company had likely impacted retention and recruitment," wrote KeyBanc Capital Markets analyst Alex Kurtz. (Whitman had been a top contender to take over at Uber, but ultimately did not take the position.)

HPE underwent a series of corporate restructurings during Whitman's tenure. She served as CEO of HP Inc. (HPQ) since 2011 and remained CEO of HPE following its split from HP Inc. in 2015.

"We have a much smaller, much nimbler, much more focused company," said Whitman. "And I think it is absolutely the right time for Antonio."

"The next CEO of this company needs to be a deeper technologist, and that's exactly what Antonio is," Whitman said.

A look at Meg Whitman's career.
A look at Meg Whitman's career.

Her six years at the helm of HP or HPE fall just short of the average eight-year-tenure for CEOs, according to February 2017 report by executive search firm Korn Ferry. At 61, Whitman exceeds the average age of 58 for a CEO across all industries, according to a Korn Ferry study of the top 1,000 companies by revenue in 2016.

Following her assistance during the transition, Whitman said she is taking some time off. She said she is not running for office and has no intention to take another CEO position. She lost a race to be governor of California in 2010 to Jerry Brown. 

"If it was another CEO job, it would have to be exactly the right opportunity," Whitman said on CNBC on Wednesday. Whitman also said that there is "no chance" she will join a competitor to HPE. 

Still, her departure means that just 27 companies of the S&P 500 will have a woman as a CEO, according to BoardEx, a relationship mapping service of TheStreet Inc. 

"I think in the last couple of decades that we have made a lot of progress in the number of female executives in the C-Suite," Whitman said. "It has stalled out in the last decade if you look at the data and that is concerning."

"We need to continue to encourage the pipeline of women going to business school, law school, getting into business and beginning to build their careers," Whitman said. "We need to make sure that the next generation of women is strong and has all of the opportunities that they deserve," she added.

But women CEOs are often held to a higher standard than their male counterparts, despite the fact that Fortune 500 female CEOs tend to have more experience and more rigorous academic degrees.

Whitman is a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Business School, according to BoardEx. After Harvard, she was a brand manager at Procter & Gamble Co. (PG) , before becoming a consultant at Bain & Co. She worked at Walt Disney Co. (DIS) and Hasbro Inc. (HAS) before becoming eBay Inc.'s Ebay CEO in 1998. After her unsuccessful gubernatorial run in 2010, Whitman landed the top job at Hewlett Packard, the predecessor to HPE, in 2011.

A 2015 study by non-profit educational membership organization American Management Association (AMA) found that the average graduate school ranking is 18.1 for a woman, compared to 20.7 for male Fortune 500 CEOs.

Women also tend to have more work and life experience when initially appointed to lead a company. Female CEOs are appointed at an average age of 52.8 years old versus 50.2 years old for males.

"These statistics seem to show that women are held to different if not more demanding standards than men," said Jeremey Donovan, chief marketing officer for AMA and the author of the report.

Donovan suggested that there are systemic reasons why women find it more difficult to reach the top-tier of the corporate pipeline.

"There's discrimination, conscious or unconscious," Donovan said. "Corporate culture is still male dominated, a phenomenon women are surely aware of even if men may not be."

Men may be finally starting to understand the level of discrimination toward women in the workplace given the recent reckoning of sexual harassment allegations against some of the male titans in politics and the media.

"You think about incidents over the last year, with Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes and Bill O'Reilly," Rent the Runway CEO Jennifer Hyman told CBS News. "These are companies where not just those individuals were extremely powerful, but everyone who runs that company and anyone in a position of power is a man."

"If you had women on the boards in those companies, you would not have had the kind of payouts -- there's no way," added Jane Rosenthal, film producer and Tribeca Film Festival co-founder. (Twenty-First Century Fox Inc. (FOXA) has paid out $50 million over the past year to settle sexual harassment claims.)

Donovan suggests that companies review hiring practices, help women find a mentor, educate leaders about gender pay gaps and support female career development.

Recent studies have also suggested that having more women in leadership roles may improve a firm's performance. Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have financial returns that were above their national industry mean, according to a 2015 study by management consulting firm McKinsey and Co.

HPE shares fell by more than 8% as of about 12 p.m. on Wednesday.

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