When Indra K. Nooyi was appointed PepsiCo's new chief executive this week, she became one of 11 female leaders of Fortune 500 companies. But because there are so few women on top of the corporate ladder, the spotlight on Nooyi will go beyond her business decisions. She will bear another responsibility: that of a role model inside and outside the corporate world.
"For a woman, it's an extra burden not only being a role model for women in the company but you're carrying the weight [that] the whole world is watching," said Betty Spence, president of the National Association for Female Executives.
Corporate recruiters and women leadership experts say Nooyi and other female executives face a dichotomy: They want to be recognized for their achievements and accomplishments but it's hard to ignore that they are among the few occupying corner offices. So any time a woman reaches the top, women celebrate it, and it draws more attention.
That means their leadership style and personal life as well as their successes and failures face much more scrutiny.
PepsiCo Inc. will become the second-largest U.S. company headed by a woman. Patricia Woertz of agricultural firm Archer Daniels Midland Co. runs the largest. By leading PepsiCo, a company that so many consumers can identify with through its sales of soft drinks and snacks, Nooyi's post is likely to warrant her even more exposure, experts say. And because PepsiCo has groomed several women for top posts at other companies, Nooyi will run an operation that will be looked to more than ever by women as a leader in promoting a diverse work force, experts say.
Catalyst, a nonprofit research organization that works to expand opportunities for women at work, said women held 26.7 percent of officer posts at PepsiCo in 2005.
Shira Tarrant, a professor of women's studies at California State University at Long Beach, said it's important for women in business to have role models. But whether or not female executives ask to be role models, "we scrutinize women more closely, and if they fail, up to whatever ideals we have in our minds of what role models should look like, then they are penalized."
Experts in female business leaders point to former Hewlett-Packard Co. chief executive Carleton "Carly" Fiorina's ouster as a perfect example. Fiorina, considered a role model by many women, was forced out last year in the aftermath of a controversial merger with Compaq. Hewlett-Packard had stumbled financially.
Nooyi, 50, a native of India, joined PepsiCo in 1994 and climbed the ranks, most recently as president and chief financial officer. She declined yesterday to be interviewed, a company spokeswoman said.
"It's not to say there was anything anyone did special to help her along the way because she was a woman of color, but the mere fact a woman of color could climb to such heights in corporate America is a message that should be yelled loud and clear," said Deborah M. Soon, vice president of executive leadership initiatives at Catalyst.
In 2005, women held 16.4 percent of corporate officer positions, up from 15.7 percent three years ago, according to a recent study by Catalyst. Representation of minority women in the executive suite is even smaller. Women of color held 1.7 percent of corporate officer positions in Fortune 500 companies in 2005. Men also earn more pay than do women in similar jobs.
Experts say those kinds of figures prove that the gender gap is still a problem in corporate America. But they say every time someone like Nooyi moves up, it shows other women that it can happen.
But Nooyi already has experienced scrutiny and criticism. Her speech at Columbia University's business school commencement in May 2005 drew the ire of bloggers when she compared the five major continents to the five fingers of the hand - with the United States being the middle finger and Africa the pinkie.
PepsiCo issued an apology, according to Business Week.
Other female chief executives have acknowledged the pressures that come with such roles. But most have said they welcome the responsibility.
Avon Products chief executive Andrea Jung, who is Chinese-American, told The New York Times in 1999 that she is "proud of my heritage and certainly my gender. I think it's a privilege being a minority woman leading a Fortune 250 company."
Dale Winston, chief executive officer of Battalia Winston International, an executive search firm, said Nooyi has shown herself to be a role model already.
"I can't think of anyone who's more deserving of her role in that organization," Winston said.