When a Female C.E.O. Leaves, the Glass Ceiling Is Restored

After Indra Nooyi leaves PepsiCo, only 24 women will remain as chief executives the top publicly traded companies that comprise the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index, accounting for just 4.8 percent of its leaders.

And then there were 24.

With the announcement of Indra Nooyi’s departure on Monday as chief executive of PepsiCo, only 24 women will remain as chief executives of the top publicly traded companies that make up the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index, accounting for just 4.8 percent of its leaders.

And the number is going down, not up. Two other female chief executives recently stepped down — Denise M. Morrison of Campbell Soup and Irene Rosenfeld of the snack food maker Mondelez International — with only one new female executive being appointed, Kathy Warden of Northrop Grumman. That should raise all sorts of soul searching about what’s happening in corporate America — especially at a time when so much public focus and effort has been put on gender diversity.

One of those many questions is this: Even at companies run by prominent women — where you would think that the glass ceiling had been shattered — why is their replacement hardly ever another woman?

Only three times in history has a woman succeeded another woman as chief executive at a public traded company, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit consulting and research firm on women in business. Anne Mulcahy was succeeded at Xerox in 2009 by Ursula Burns, Andrea Jung of Avon was succeeded by Sheri McCoy in 2011, and Susan Cameron of Reynolds American was succeeded by Debra A. Crew in 2017.

Ms. Nooyi will be succeeded in October by Ramon Laguarta, who has been with PepsiCo for 22 years.

There are many explanations for the dearth of the promotion of women to the C-suite: Boards still have fewer women (about 21 percent for the S.&P. 500), a gender pay gap still very much exists, female executive generally still lack the same opportunities to move up the ranks and there are still simply fewer women in upper management at most companies to be promoted.

Among the explanations is one that is particularly counterintuitive and so sensitive that no female chief executives would speak about it on the record. Several female leaders told me privately they hesitate to promote women into senior positions because they are worried that they will be accused of bias.

In their view, a man will be heralded for doing so while a woman’s motives might be questioned.

It is worth lingering on that for a moment. If some female executives feel reticent to promote women for fear that their actions will be questioned, then the entire approach to creating more gender equality needs to be rethought.

Ilene Lang, interim president & chief executive of Catalyst, scoffed at the idea that female chief executives should be responsible for creating opportunities for women any more than men are.

“Why are women expected to promote more women?” she asked. “Why are the women being over scrutinized more than men? That’s the issue. It’s unfair to conclude that women should be doing more than men do.”

One other significant explanation for the lack of women succeeding other women as chief executive is this: Out of the 71 instances in which women have been named chief executive, only 15 were external candidates, according to Catalyst.

In other words, culturally, it is much less likely that a woman will be hired from the outside, which means having a diverse development pipeline becomes even more important.

Ms. Nooyi said in an interview that the pool of talented women with the right skill set was in short supply when the company considered succession planning at Pepsico.

“I would have loved for the board to have had a woman to pick from. But at the end of the day, the board selects the C.E.O., and we just didn’t have any women who were ready for the job,” she said. “What happens in today’s world is that everybody is trying to get high-profile women. So what happens is that we develop these women and other people poach them.”

“Smaller companies ask them to be the C.E.O. of a smaller company, sometimes before they are ready for the C.E.O. job,” Ms. Nooyi said, adding that she actually had a female executive in mind as her successor, but that woman left several years ago for a job elsewhere.

She didn’t mention her name, but Ms. Nooyi seemed to be referring to to Ms. Crew, former president and general manager of PepsiCo North America Nutrition, who left the company in 2014 to become president of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.

She later became the company’s chief executive before leaving in 2017, when it was acquired by British American Tobacco.

“If she had stuck around and performed well, she was a shoo-in.” Ms. Nooyi said. “She would have been on the slate of candidates.”

“Promoting women is not the issue,” said Ms. Nooyi, who actively added women to the company’s upper ranks — the company’s senior management includes eight woman out of 27 total.

Instead, she said, it’s about “creating an environment, especially if you are running a global company, where women who cannot run overseas businesses can still move up.”

“How do we give them the international experiences? We have to develop those women differently.”

She explained: “The old model assumed the guy would move and that the wife would move with him. Now, you have to have a discussion where both people sit down and ask questions about what happens to the husband if the wife is given this job? What happens to the schooling of the children? It is a much broader discussion.”

In the end, the challenge for gender equality continues, but the issues — and the debate over how to get there — gets more complicated, not less. Ms. Lang said the greatest complication was still what she perceived as a double standard.

“It’s the Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire problem: She had to do everything but backwards and in high heels.”

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