Indra Nooyi’s Legacy Is More About Trade‑offs Than Personal Achievements
Her candid discussions of work-life balance were groundbreaking.
Today, it has been reported that Indra Nooyi, the Indian-born CEO of PepsiCo, is stepping down after more than two decades with the company, more than half as its leader.
“Being a CEO requires strong legs and I feel like I ran two legs of a relay race and I want somebody else with nice strong legs and sharp eyes to come and lead this company,” she told The Economic Times.
Nooyi has often been pointed to as the ultimate success story — a female immigrant to the US who achieved the American Dream in a country, a world, not known for having many women leaders. But focusing on her accomplishment alone, without acknowledging why Nooyi might feel like she’s run twice a typical distance, would be a disservice to her overall legacy.
Nooyi has been very vocal about the impossibility of work-life balance, as a female CEO and parent, discussing it frankly and in terms very different from her male counterparts:
“I don’t think women can have it all,” she told The Atlantic in 2014. “I just don’t think so. We pretend we have it all. We pretend we can have it all. My husband and I have been married for 34 years. And we have two daughters. And every day you have to make a decision about whether you are going to be a wife or a mother, in fact many times during the day you have to make those decisions. And you have to co-opt a lot of people to help you. We co-opted our families to help us. We plan our lives meticulously so we can be decent parents.”
In the same interview, Nooyi also speaks of enlisting employee support in fielding questions from her kids like, “Can I play Nintendo?”
Nooyi’s comments over the years have done much to highlight the competing demands of family and work: “…the biological clock and the career clock are in total conflict with each other. Total, complete conflict,” she said in the same interview. “When you have to have kids, you have to build your career. Just as you’re rising to middle management your kids need you because they’re teenagers, they need you for the teenage years.”
It’s this conflict that is, in large part, responsible for the dismal representation of women at the top. In the US, Nooyi’s departure leaves 24 women at the helm of large corporations; in India, a comparable list numbers only 16. But the drain of female talent starts long before the C-suite is even within reach, as The Swaddle has reported before:
“It’s not a matter of qualification; 45.9% of undergraduate students in India are women, as are 40.5% of all enrolled PhD students. Yet, women only make up 24% of the entry/junior level workforce. The pipeline leaks further at the middle managerial level, which is only 21% women; the senior managerial level, which is only 19% women; and the executive officer level, where it shrinks to 14%. At the very top, it is even lonelier: Women hold only 7.7% of board seats and just 2.7% of board chairperson roles.”
The reasons for this are many, and most are rooted in a near-universal expectation that women be the primary caretakers of the home. Most women, on a personal level, do not have the support and resources Nooyi had to help offset such responsibility. On a societal level, efforts to equal the playing field have been mixed at best — case in point, India’s recent maternity leave mandate was a stab at recognizing that workers need to be able to care for newborns without the threat of lost income, but without an accompanying mandate for equal paternity leave, the move left parenting squarely on the shoulders of women. Indeed, many have said the move will have the counter-effect of costing women jobs, instead of facilitating their careers. And once behind, it becomes nearly impossible for women to catch up.
Nooyi’s legacy lies in being the exception, rather than the rule. She recognized it, drew attention to it candidly, and even took measures to support employees with families in order to make opportunities more accessible to all. If we fail to learn from her legacy, or only celebrate her accomplishment, that’s on us.