Former PepsiCo chair and CEO Indra Nooyi is something of an icon for women’s business empowerment. Nooyi, born in India, stands out for both her achievements and the context in which she rose: Women make up fewer than 10 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, as do minorities. During and after her tenure at Pepsi, Nooyi has talked about her struggles as a mother, daughter and wife in a workplace designed for men. Her new book, “My Life in Full: Work, Family, and Our Future,” intends in part to ease the way for other women to ascend the corporate ladder.
Too bad Nooyi marred the message.
During a recent interview with the New York Times Magazine, Nooyi was asked about her salary, which topped $31 million in her final year at Pepsi. Amazingly, Nooyi said she never requested a raise. She found asking for a salary increase “cringeworthy,” adding: “I cannot imagine working for somebody and saying my pay is not enough.”
On the one hand, terrific! It’s great to know at least one (former) CEO in our country is not outrageously greedy, and decided that $31 million in annual salary and stock options was enough.
On the other hand, most of us are not CEOs. Women working full time earn only 83 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earn (and the discrepancies are worse for Black women and Latinas). Very few workers, male or female, are compensated as well as Nooyi was. If the head of a Fortune 500 company and one of the world’s most iconic brands finds asking about her pay “cringeworthy,” what hope is there for the rest of us?
This is a terrible model for women, and Nooyi knows it.
When I spoke with her on Friday, Nooyi made clear that she had been speaking about herself specifically. “When I was starting to work in the U.S., I was an immigrant woman. I was the only one of a kind and I was just happy to be in the room,” she told me.
Nooyi also said that PepsiCo’s board compensated her fairly and that it had outside help in doing so. “I never had reason to go to them and ask for a raise because there were compensation consultants that advise the board and the board treated me fairly,” she said.
Compensation consultants are a noteworthy detail and were not mentioned in the Times interview. Good that she clarified. But still: Most workers don’t get that level of outside assistance (if any). We’ve got to speak up for ourselves. And even when women are professionally successful, speaking up can be difficult.
Nooyi’s comments hit a nerve because they reflect a broader pattern. Men are generally more upfront and less apologetic than women about their financial needs, whether in seeking information on colleagues’ earnings or willingness to change jobs in search of greater pay.
And if female workers overcome the social hurdles to speaking up for themselves, they are likely to be financially punished for doing the exact same things men do. Research shows that women are less likely to receive raises when they request them and that they are often judged less likable for asking. Negotiating during job interviews has even been found to hurt women’s chances of getting hired.
In her book, Nooyi talks up the financial need for women to work but also writes that at several points early in her career earnings were not her most important priority. “I got a small raise but I wasn’t thinking about the money,” she says of one early triumph. “Money was not my driver,” she writes about her early years as a rising corporate star at PepsiCo. Only much later, she writes, did she discover that a number of male colleagues were receiving better compensation.
Nooyi says she absolutely believes that women should speak up if they don’t think they are fairly compensated. But the issues holding back female workers are so ingrained, she advocates top-down corporate and government policies and initiatives.
In her book, Nooyi stumps for national paid family leave and greater investments in child care. As for unequal pay, Nooyi writes, “HR should have been flagging these issues and systematically addressing them.”
In recent years, of course, several big companies, including Salesforce, have moved in this direction – conducting pay audits in efforts to close gender and racial pay gaps. More employers should join them. Systemic action will be more effective at implementing and sustaining change than expecting vast numbers of people to address a potentially unfair situation one by one by one.
Nooyi’s successes should be lauded. But workers should also keep in mind, even if we love our jobs – and life is better if we do – that most of us primarily work for money. We shouldn’t apologize for or downplay that fact. The cost of doing so is too damn high.
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Helaine Olen is the author of “Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry.”