When Nooyi announced Monday morning, at the age of 62, that she will step down from Pepsi this fall after a 12-year-run as its chief executive, she became the latest of several female leaders to leave companies on the S&P 500, including Campbell Soup’s Denise Morrison, Hewlett-Packard’s Meg Whitman, and Mondelez International’s Irene Rosenfeld. Nooyi will be replaced by a male Pepsi executive named Ramon Laguarta, at which point the S&P 500 will include 24 female CEOs (assuming no other changes in their ranks), according to the nonprofit Catalyst, which advocates for inclusive workplaces for women. The tally will return to 25 early next year, when Kathy Warden becomes CEO of the aerospace and defense company Northrop Grumman. The percentage of female CEOs has been on an upward trend for many years, but the progress has been uncomfortably slow.
On an episode of the podcast Freakonomics earlier this year, the host, Stephen J. Dubner, asked Nooyi whether she believes there are so few female CEOs because of a gendered cultural understanding of how a leader should behave. Nooyi told him, “I don’t think that’s the issue.” Instead, she said, there’s a pipeline problem. There are plenty of women in entry-level positions, but the period when people typically begin to move up the career ladder—their thirties and forties—coincides with the child-rearing years (not to mention the years in which one’s parents are aging and more likely to need extra care).
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.