Indian women put cracks in glass ceiling in United States

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World leaders and international organizations are calling for more rights and opportunities for women in order to help solve many of the world’s problems. “Yes, gender equality is a long way off, but it is very important when a woman, especially an Asian woman like PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, becomes such a powerful CEO of a major US corporation. Despite the challenges, annual reports of many US companies show Indian women are landing big jobs. Cisco chief technology officer Padmasree Warrior, finance high-flyer Sheila Hooda, high-tech innovator Anita Goel and former World Bank and McKinsey & Co consultant Rohini Dey are emblematic of the plodding progress of women.

PepsiCo shares shot up 28 cents to $63.61 on the New York stock exchange on August 14, 2006, when the soft-drink giant announced Indra K. Nooyi would replace Steven Reinemund as CEO. Clearly, the market put its money on Nooyi, who succeeded a long line of white males.

And, Nooyi hasn’t disappointed. She has shown prescient business sense in the C-suite by taking Pepsi in an unlikely direction — from caffeine colas to fruit juices.

By 2010, Nooyi has pledged, half of Pepsi’s US revenue will come from healthy products such as low cal Gatorade and high-fiber oatmeal. The company will dump fossil fuels in favor of wind and solar. She has reinvented PepsiCo to make it less US cola war-fixated and delegated power by doubling her executive team to 29. Nooyi has kept PepsiCo highly profitable through America’s financial Armageddon. The US media has hailed her as one of “America’s best leaders” for balancing the profit motive with striving for a net-zero impact on the environment and taking care of the workforce.

“Yes, gender equality is a long way off, but it is very important when a woman, especially an Asian woman like Indra Nooyi, becomes such a powerful CEO of a major US corporation. We understand the power of role models,” said Katherine Giscombe, a senior director of research at New York’s Catalyst, which tracks women in business.

Fifteen Fortune 500 companies are run by women, and 28 Fortune 1000 companies have women in the top job. Near the top there remains slow progress in the number of female directors and highest paid. But women receive about six in 10 college degrees, so change is coming willy-nilly.

“We are very impressed that a foreign-born Asian woman has been able to ascend to the highest level of  corporate leadership,” said Giscombe, who has directed the groundbreaking study, “Women of Color in Corporate Management: Opportunities and Barriers.”

“Asian women are double removed from people who are typically most powerful in corporations. In terms of forming relationships at the workplace, there is more of a challenge for them to get mentors.

Despite the challenges, annual reports of many US companies show Indian women are landing big jobs. Cisco chief technology officer Padmasree Warrior, finance high-flyer Sheila Hooda, high-tech innovator Anita Goel and former World Bank and McKinsey & Co consultant Rohini Dey are emblematic of the plodding progress of women.

Less than 10 percent senior posts on Wall Street are filled by women, but former Lehman Brothers managing director Romita Shetty and IIM-Ahmedabad educated Sheila Hooda have been part of that statistic.

Hooda was a managing director in Credit Suisse before moving to the financial services giant, the $410 billion Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association — College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA-CREF). She finds it neither an advantage nor a disadvantage to be a woman in a male club.

“My father died when I was nine,” said Sheila. “I had no one to fall back on — my mother was religious and quiet, and I was the eldest child. So even as a nine-year-old, I was driven, hardworking and focused.”

“I knew it was the only way I could do well for myself and my younger brothers and sister,” said Hooda, now a senior managing director and global head of strategy and development at TIAA-CREF.

Hooda worked at American Express in Mumbai before coming to the US in 1988 for an MBA in finance from the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business. She was hired on campus by McKinsey & Co.

“As Indians, we have the tough quant and analytical skills to do data-crunching. But all the A-plus performing in the world goes unnoticed without soft skills. The US puts an emphasis on soft skills, so it is important to be a strong team player and a good presenter,” said Hooda.

Nooyi spoke about the sacrifices stressed-out mothers made to reach the corner office, during a panel on “Women and Global Leadership” at the Yale Club in New York. She was candid about how it jolted her when her teenage daughter sent her an email seeking an hour-long appointment.

“Worries over whether I am doing justice to my family while juggling work makes me tear my hair,” said Nooyi, dispelling the notion of being a superwoman. “Being a trailblazer has its own set of issues. Right now I am trying to navigate through all this while not forgetting that I have a core set of responsibilities that include being a CEO, mother and wife. Not in that order. The order is mother, mother, mother, CEO and wife,” said Nooyi, who has two daughters.

Nooyi, who works long hours, said that being an immigrant fuelled her will to succeed. “I am a first generation immigrant. I had no safety net. If I failed, I failed. That kept me going. Any survey will tell you first generation Indian Americans work extraordinarily hard. When I think of my beginning, where I was born and brought up, being Pepsico’s CEO is not just incredible – it is incredulous! I can’t even connect the dots.”

Stereotypes of women’s roles and abilities are considered leading barriers, but Naina Lal Kidwai, chief of HSBC India, told the same panel that women had to shed “self-imposed” glass ceilings. “I may sound very irreverent here but the biggest glass ceiling we have is ourselves. Self-imposed glass ceilings — feelings which tell us we can’t go beyond a certain level. Issues like the ones Indra referred to, which are personal: Can I juggle home and career? Can I be wife, mother and work? These are self-imposed glass ceilings,” said Kidwai, the first Indian woman to graduate from Harvard Business School. “You worry that you may drown. Then when you get there and take that leap of faith, it isn’t so bad after all.”

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