The Current

Want more women to become CEOs? Give them tools to juggle work and family, says former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi

Indra Nooyi became the first South Asian woman to lead a Fortune 500 company when she was named CEO of PepsiCo in 2006.

Nooyi warns young women that climb to top of business world 'gets very, very steep'

Indra Nooyi was CEO of PepsiCo from 2006 to 2018. (Pascal Lauener/Reuters)

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Originally published on Oct. 27, 2021

When former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi started out in the corporate world in the 1980s, she says there were so few women in boardrooms that you had to "earn your stripes to be in the room."

"You're sitting there with butterflies in the stomach saying, 'How do I over-prepare... so I can justify why somebody like me is at that table?'" said Nooyi, who was CEO of the Fortune 500 company from 2006 to 2018, and currently serves on Amazon's board of directors.

"My answer was, let's focus on what I'm going to contribute to your company," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Nooyi has released a memoir about her life and career. (Hachette)

Nooyi has released a memoir about her life and career, My Life in Full: Work, Family and Our Future. Born in Chennai, India, she moved to the U.S. to attend Yale in 1978, and worked for various companies before joining PepsiCo as a senior vice-president in 1994.

When she joined the company, she wanted to be "treated like everyone else," she said. But in those early years in the mid-90s, there were moments when she felt being a woman in the boardroom made that impossible.

"I was in a meeting where I was presenting and a couple of people in the room, a couple of men in the room, attacked my presentation and the CEO didn't say anything," she remembered.

Nooyi had hoped for support from the top of the company, but when it didn't come, she told them she was quitting.

"I'd had enough. At some point, you've just got to say no, I'm not going to put up with it. That was my way of rebelling," she said.

"And that very second, the tone of the top changed and said, 'Hey, hey, there is no way we're going to let her walk out the door.'" 

Why aren't there more women CEOs?

Nooyi moved up to become PepsiCo's president and chief financial officer in 2001, before being named CEO in 2006. That year, Fortune listed 10 female CEOs in its annual list of the biggest 500 companies in the U.S., by revenue.

In 2021, that number has risen to 41 women leading Fortune 500 companies; a record high, but still just 8.1 per cent of the total leadership. 

Nooyi said many women don't reach those upper ranks because of the demands of balancing work and family life, in a way many of their male counterparts are not expected to.

I honestly believe that if we give young family builders and women the appropriate support ... we would have more women CEOs.- Indra Nooyi

In other cases, women rising through big companies will get poached to lead smaller businesses, she said.

"They say, 'Hey, I can be CEO of a smaller company, why not? It's equally good and there's a more manageable lifestyle,'" she said.

She said the pandemic has also laid bare the challenges facing women at all levels of the workforce, in particular around low wages and costly child care.

Facing a labour shortage as they emerge from pandemic lockdowns, some businesses have resorted to raising wages. But in January, a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, an Ottawa-based think-tank, tabulated that Canadian CEOs are paid 202 times more than their typical workers

In her final year as PepsiCo CEO, Nooyi was paid $31 million US, but she said she is not the person to "opine on CEO compensation."

"It's a lot of money. Whether it's a lot of money for the job, or is it too much money for the job, who am I to say," she said.

In a recent New York Times Magazine interview, Nooyi said she has never asked for a raise, finding the idea "cringeworthy." 

She faced criticism for the remarks, including around the idea that a reticence among women to ask for raises contributes to the gender pay gap.

"Let me be crystal clear, I believe in pay parity for women and men," she told Galloway.

Nooyi said she has never asked for a raise because it wasn't part of her cultural upbringing. (Don Heupel/Reuters)

She said that she always felt well-compensated for her work, and even if she noticed other people being paid more, asking for a raise was not something she was comfortable with.

"I didn't know how to ask for it, it's a cultural issue. Nothing to do with whether women should get paid the same," she said.

"If it was happening to my daughters, anybody today, I would insist they bring this up."

Support 'young family builders': Nooyi

Balancing work and family life was always a juggling act, Nooyi said, but she added she was able to rely on her husband and extended family for child-care responsibilities in the early days, and could afford professional help later on.

"There's a lot of people who can't afford the kind of care that I could pay for, so I think we have to look at all this with great empathy and humanity," she said.

As COVID-19 restrictions eased and workplaces reopened in Canada, some women found themselves unable to secure the necessary childcare to return to work. In March, a report from the Labour Market Information Council found that low-earning women were the most severely impacted of any income group or gender, and were the furthest away from recovery.

Nooyi said there needs to be a "multi-faceted approach" to solving the problems of low pay and family support.

"I honestly believe that if we give young family builders and women the appropriate support, more people will stay in the job and we would have more women CEOs that bubble up," she said.

When young women ask her for advice about reaching the top, she tells them to carefully consider about what they want from life.

"Think hard about the climb to the top. It is a pyramid. It gets very, very steep," she said.

"Once you decide to go for it, build a support structure that's second to none, because that's what you're going to need."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Idella Sturino.

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