Should Indra Nooyi have groomed a female successor?

To some, Indra Nooyi’s departure leaves a bitter aftertaste.
To some, Indra Nooyi’s departure leaves a bitter aftertaste.
Image: Reuters/Leah Millis
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

There are only 25 women running S&P 500 companies, and this week one of them said she’s stepping down. Indra Nooyi, one of the longer-serving CEOs by current standards, is a trailblazer in many respects. She took PepsiCo’s revenue from $35 billion to $63.5 billion during her 12-year tenure, and positioned the company to survive in a post-soda world. Would her legacy be even stronger if she had managed to leave the business in the hands of another capable woman?

Nooyi’s successor, Ramon Laguarta, has deep experience running PepsiCo operations in Europe and Africa, and has worked directly alongside Nooyi since his promotion to company president in 2017. Wall Street sees him as a solid pick. But if you’re waiting on meaningful advancement in the fight for gender equality, or just think 5% female representation among big-company CEOs is a smidge low, it’s hard to see PepsiCo’s succession plan as anything but a setback for women.

With the ranks of female CEOs so thin, it’s painfully noticeable whenever a company enlightened enough to have had a woman in charge winds up backsliding. It seems to be happening a lot lately—Irene Rosenfeld at Mondelez International was replaced by a man, as was Meg Whitman at HP Enterprise. Each time, we are left with one less woman advocating, either directly or just through her presence, for women in business.

There are those who argue that, as women, Nooyi and the 24 other female S&P 500 CEOs have a moral obligation to groom female talent, to help ensure that the world’s largest companies move forward on gender diversity, or at least won’t slide backward. Sure. But there are 475 other CEOs in their ranks who ought to feel similarly obligated.

This was published as part of the weekend edition of the Quartz Daily Brief, our roundup of the world’s most interesting and important news. Sign up here for the newsletter, tailored for morning delivery in Asia, Europe and Africa, or the Americas.