When Indra Nooyi steps down on Wednesday as chief executive of PepsiCo after a successful 12 years at the helm, there will be one less woman running a major American company. Her successor, Ramon Laguarta, is a man.
Ms. Nooyi’s departure marks the continuation of a dispiriting trend across corporate America: For all the talk of leaning in, breaking glass ceilings and diversity in the boardroom, the number of women running major companies is on the decline.
Over the past year, Irene Rosenfeld stepped down from Mondelez, Denise Morrison was ousted from Campbell Soup Company, Margo Georgiadis left the toy company Mattel, Sherilyn S. McCoy departed Avon, and Meg Whitman retired from Hewlett-Packard.
Like Ms. Nooyi, all five were replaced by men. As a result, fewer than 5 percent of companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 now have female chief executives.
“There are a sufficient number of incredibly talented women who are capable of succeeding as C.E.O.s,” said Christy M. Glass, a professor of sociology at Utah State University who studies gender diversity in the business world. “But there are structural barriers that they confront, starting earlier in their career, and continuing all the way through being C.E.O.”
So what can be done to remedy this sorry state of affairs?
Experts said that, ultimately, the solution must start in the boardroom. Boards of directors are responsible for choosing chief executives. If they are not attuned to the importance of diversity, and diverse themselves, there is little hope for meaningful change.
“Boards tend to bring in C.E.O.s who are similar to themselves,” said Lorraine Hariton, chief executive of Catalyst, a nonprofit organization focused on women in business. “The board has to act very intentionally. Who’s in their pool? If they hire a search firm, did they ask them to present a diverse slate of candidates? And it helps if the people making the decision are also diverse.”
Indeed, a study by Ms. Glass and her research partner Alison Cook found that when boards were more diverse, they were more likely to appoint a female chief executive. The study also showed that at companies with more diverse boards, female chief executives had longer tenures than those at companies with less diverse boards.
“Companies do a better job at standardizing the hiring process for secretaries than for C.E.O.s,” Ms. Glass said. “It’s the perfect recipe for bias, particularly because most boards are male dominated.”
Even before the final decision is made, however, there are steps that boards can take to increase the likelihood that their company might one day be led by a woman.
“If we believe that more women C.E.O.s is beneficial for business and the country, then boards need to demand that their C.E.O.s have a rigorous strategy in place to advance more women,” said Julie Sweet, chief executive for North America at Accenture, the consulting firm. “That strategy needs to include sponsorship and targeted outside hiring as well.”
Strong sponsorship programs, in which men advocate for women inside an organization and work to see talented women promoted, are one step. Just as important, it helps when men are vocal about their efforts to promote women.
“Diversity and equity tend to be seen as women’s work,” Ms. Glass said. “Women C.E.O.s are asked constantly what they are doing to elevate other women, whereas men C.E.O.s are almost never held accountable for the advancement of women in their organizations.”
Another step that can help is mandating that women are considered for the top jobs. Some companies, including American Express, Nasdaq and Best Buy, have recently signed up for the Parity Pledge, committing to consider at least one qualified woman for every open role at the vice president level and higher, including C-suite executives and the board.
Underlying all these efforts is the need to eliminate unconscious bias. Ms. Hariton said common examples of bias that prevented women from advancing into more senior roles included “the double bind” — when men perceived a woman as either too aggressive or too passive, but never quite right — and assumptions about a woman’s willingness to make sacrifices.
For example, a male manager might not consider asking a woman to take a new senior role in a new city because he knows she has a family, then offer the same job to a man who also has a family. And there is the stubborn truth that often, Ms. Hariton said, “women are judged by their experience, and men are judged by their potential.”
Finally, Ms. Glass also said she hoped to see more women serving as chiefs of multiple companies over their careers. Women are far less likely than men to continue in the corporate world after serving as a chief executive.
Only twice has a female chief executive of a Fortune 500 company gone on to serve as chief of another big company, and a disproportionately low number of women who were chief executives go on to serve on corporate boards.
But even if boards get more diverse in the years ahead, that alone will not be enough.
It will take concerted effort — education, bias training, sponsorship, goal setting, targeted hiring and more — to make sure that, years from now, corporate America is not still wringing its hands about a problem of its own making.
David Gelles is a business reporter for The Times and the Corner Office columnist. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @dgelles.