The CEO of PepsiCo is stepping down after spending 12 years of ushering the brand into the future. But the landscape for female executives hasn’t changed all that much.
When the PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi’s younger daughter, Tara, was a child, she would call her mother’s office to ask for permission to play Nintendo. The receptionist would answer the phone and run down a list of questions Nooyi had prepared—“Have you finished your homework?” and so on. “She goes through the questions and she says, ‘Okay, you can play Nintendo half an hour,’ Nooyi recalled in a 2014 interview with The Atlantic. “[My receptionist] leaves me a message, ‘Tara called at 5, this is the sequence of questions I went through, I’ve given her permission.’” She added, a bit archly, “It’s seamless parenting.”
In that interview, Nooyi had been discussing whether women can “have it all”—successful careers, personal lives, and the rest. To outside observers, it may have seemed that she did: During her tenure at Pepsi, one of the largest and most influential food-and-beverage companies in world, the company’s revenue increased from $35 billion to $63.5 billion, as it added healthier drinks and snacks to its previous repertoire of largely sodas and junk food. Nooyi accomplished this while parenting two daughters—one of whom ended up attending Yale’s business school, Nooyi’s alma mater. Still Nooyi had concluded that “having it all” is illusory, though there are nonetheless some “coping mechanisms” involving, in part, a more creative approach to managing family and work.
The imperative to work long, hard hours in order to move ahead competes with responsibilities at home; and something has to give. “How are you going to attract women to the workforce, where we need them, but allow them to balance having a family and taking care of aging parents … and still allow them to contribute productively to the workforce?” she asked. “I don’t have an answer to that. It’s got to be a concerted effort on the part of governments, societies, families, companies—all of us coming together.”
Nooyi’s assessment is backed by evidence. Women make up 44 percent of employees of S&P 500 companies; they also make up 37 percent of first-level and mid-level officials and managers, and 27 percent of executive and senior-level officials and managers. A similar pattern exists in other fields—law, medicine, politics. “Women have gotten into entry-level positions very successfully, and then they get to middle management, and things stall out,” Ilene Lang, the interim CEO of Catalyst, told me.
Research suggests that workplace policies that reward time spent at the office (and penalize time away), in a culture in which women often expected to be primary caregivers at home, have played a role; so have more overt forms of bias, such as gendered assumptions about what leaders should look like. On top of that, the relatively few women who make it to the executive suite aren’t often in positions in which they might make decisions directly related to how the company makes, or loses, money—the kinds of roles that lead to 90 percent of CEO appointments; instead, they’re in jobs such as chief financial officer that don’t provide the operational experience desired in a CEO.
Two years ago, the Rockefeller Campaign launched a campaign called 100 X 25, aimed at getting the Fortune 500 to include 100 women, up from 21 at the time, by 2025. Later that year, a small number of female executives spearheaded the creation of Paradigm for Parity, a pledge, signed by the CEOs of more than two dozen prominent companies, to increase the proportion of women in senior “operating roles”—the kind that lead to CEO positions—so that they fill half of them by 2030. The pledge’s backers created a five-point plan to get there, including basing employee’s career progress on their results, rather than their presence at the office. Both group’s goals are ambitious. But Nooyi’s departure is the latest reminder that, based on current progress, they seem unlikely to be met.