Female CEOs are leading big corporations these days, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi pointed largely to work-life balance and a leaky pipeline as big culprits.
“I think the issue is that we get a lot of women in at the entry-level positions,” said Nooyi, who was born in Chennai, India. “As you get to middle management, women rise to those positions, and then that’s the childbearing years. And when they have children, it’s difficult to balance having children, your career, your marriage, and be a high potential out-performer who’s going to grow in the company, in an organization that is a pyramid. It starts to thin out as you move up. We have to solve for that.”
Nooyi’s exit will also leave an even smaller number of women with a minority racial or ethnic background — with only a small handful running major public corporations. In 2017, for instance, PG&E CEO Geisha Williams became the first Latina chief executive to run a Fortune 500 company; Advanced Micro Devices chief Lisa Su was born in Taiwan. But a leaky pipeline and a lack of support for working mothers — however important those issues are to resolve — are also just part of the explanation for why so few women, and particularly minority women, reach corporate America’s steepest pinnacle, researchers say.
“If you boil it down to who people are expecting to see as a potential leader, there still is a very sticky prototype of a leader being tall, white and male,” said Katherine Phillips, a professor at Columbia Business School who studies issues of diversity in leadership. The catalyst described the “emotional tax” that many minorities feel at work in a report earlier this year — the sense they have to be “on guard” against potential bias from co-workers. Researchers doing a longitudinal study of African American women who’d gotten a Harvard MBA at the school over four decades found a similar sense of exhaustion when they interviewed some of the women, who felt “being themselves” at work often took more effort than it did for their white male peers. Other research has shown that white men may even strike back after a minority or woman takes on a leadership role, if indirectly. University of Michigan business professor Jim Westphal found in a study of survey data involving 1,000 executives that white male leaders tended to feel less of an identification with their employers following the appointment of a female or minority CEO. That reduced their willingness to help other colleagues.