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Why Major U.S. Companies Still Have So Few Women CEOs


When Indra Nooyi became CEO of Pepsi in 2006, there were not many major U.S. companies led by women. Now, she is stepping down after 12 years, and today, there are still not many major U.S. companies led by women. Vauhini Vara writes in The Atlantic about why this problem has been so tough to solve. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

VAUHINI VARA: Thanks for having me, Ari.

SHAPIRO: First give us a snapshot. How many major companies are led by women right now?

VARA: So after Indra Nooyi leaves, there will be only 24 female CEOs in the Fortune 500, which is down from something, like, in the 30s last year.

SHAPIRO: Wow. So the trend lines are not good.

VARA: No, they are not. Although, in the long run, there have gradually been more female CEOs in the Fortune 500. But over the last year, there have been some high-profile departures. And because there are so few - relatively few women leading Fortune 500 companies, the change looks really big just because you're operating from a pretty small number to start with.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. What's the main reason you found that the numbers are so low?

VARA: The main reason is that even though women enter the workforce at similar rates than men, they're just not getting promoted into middle management and then the highest ranks of leadership at the same rates as men. And so it's a pipeline problem essentially.

SHAPIRO: You write about this in your article. You say among Fortune 500 companies, women make up 44 percent of employees, 37 percent of first-level and middle-level officials and managers and 27 percent of executive and senior-level managers. And Indra Nooyi actually spoke to the Freakonomics podcast about why the numbers thin out the higher you go. Let's listen to part of what she said.


INDRA NOOYI: You know, as you get to middle management, women rise to those positions, and then that's the childbearing years. And when they have children, you know, it's difficult to balance having children, your career, your marriage and, you know, be a high potential outperformer who's going to grow in the company and an organization that's - you know, every one of them is a pyramid, so it starts to thin out as you move up.

SHAPIRO: This is the perpetual problem - balancing work and family, it sounds like.

VARA: It's true, and it's a problem, we should note, for both women and men. And yet, as is clear from Indra Nooyi's own comments, like, we still have this cultural notion that it's more a problem for women. Women are expected to take on more of the tasks at home than men, and they do spend more time on child care and on housework. And so it just ends up being a fact that when in workplaces where people need to put in more time and spend more hours at the office in order to be promoted, women are the ones more than men who lose out.

SHAPIRO: If you were in charge of a company and trying to create a better pipeline for women to reach senior leadership positions, what kinds of steps would you take?

VARA: Research does suggest that there are some potential solutions, some ways of getting us to a better number. One is that I would change what performance reviews measures so that people are judged more clearly based on the results they bring to the company or the organization rather than the time spent. I would also continue to make it a priority for women to be mentored, whether that's by female or male professionals who are higher in the ranks because research does show that mentorship and sponsorship is important in getting women into the higher ranks. And I would try to change the culture of the company. Studies show that we still - when asked what a leader looks like, we describe a kind of strapping white male who's 6 feet tall rather than a woman or a person of color. And so some cultural change needs to take place as well.

SHAPIRO: Vauhini Vara is editor of the Human Capital project at Thanks for talking to us.

VARA: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALESSO'S "DESTINATIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.