Two women at separate ends of the professional spectrum have been eating up media space for the past few days. Indra K Nooyi, chief executive of PepsiCo for the past 12 years, has announced that she would be stepping down and Ramon Laguarta, who has been with PepsiCo for 22 years, would be taking her place. Nooyi will step down permanently as PepsiCo chairwoman in early 2019.
This has understandably created quite a stir for a variety of important reasons. Since Nooyi became CEO, PepsiCo’s revenue grew to $63.5 billion from $35 billion in 2006, and the company’s share price nearly doubled. Yet, Nooyi is one of just a handful of women who are heading large corporations. She was one of 11 women leading the largest American companies in 2006. Today, she’s one of 25 women leading companies that are listed on Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.
There’s been a 25 per cent drop in women CEOs at major firms. A long list of women who’ve recently left leadership positions in the US – from Denise M. Morrison at Campbell Soup to Margo Georgiadis at Mattel, Sherilyn S. McCoy at Avon, Irene Rosenfeld at Mondelez and Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard. All of them have been replaced by men. Much as Nooyi will be.
On the other side, there’s Priyanka Chopra, Bollywood and Hollywood actress, and the star of her own US series, Quantico, which ran for three seasons. She’s also the only Bollywood star who’s made it to every talk show and award show on her own steam, standing shoulder to shoulder with Hollywood actors. No small feat this, when you think that the best Aishwarya Rai and Amitabh Bachchan have managed is to sit in the audience for the Oscars, and act alongside Leonardo Di Caprio in a two-minute appearance, respectively. While Nimrat Kaur may have landed a role in Homeland, and Anupam Kher has acted in countless Hollywood films since Bend It Like Beckham, no one has garnered a space for themselves on foreign screens as steadfastly as Chopra has, without losing her foothold in Bollywood. There has rarely been a better cultural ambassador to the US for modern India.
Chopra has also gone against the grain by publicly dating a man 10 years younger to her. That too, he isn’t an American or NRI businessman, like most actresses. She’s been dating singer Nick Jonas, who an entire international populace below the age of 16 seems to venerate.
Yet, Nooyi and Chopra can break glass ceilings professionally and in the realm of women’s empowerment – but ultimately, they’re brought down to earth by ‘Indian tradition’. And not in a good way.
A few years back, Nooyi had fondly narrated an anecdote about how the chairman and chief executive of PepsiCo had called and informed her that she was going to be named the president of the company and included in the board of directors. She reached home to tell her family about her promotion – an even bigger deal in 2006 than it is today – only to be told by her mother to leave the house and buy milk for the morning.
When she returned with the milk and confronted her mother about her lack of interest in her promotion, her mother reportedly said that she might be the president of PepsiCo, “but when you enter this house, you’re the wife, you’re the daughter, you’re the daughter-in-law, you’re the mother. You’re all of that. So leave that damned crown in the garage.”
An anecdote which reeks of patriarchy.
Why could Nooyi’s mother who would have been 62-years-old at the time, not buy the milk? Or her husband? Or why could they simply not order the milk from the supermarket? Because it’s the woman’s duty to be responsible for the kitchen? This is similar to when colleagues I met in Delhi, told me proudly that their fathers and they would only eat food cooked by their mothers and not the cook, even if that meant their mothers could never do anything other than chop, cook and clean as a result. It was the ultimate show of appreciation and devotion from both parties.
That Nooyi’s anecdote was narrated with affection, is depressing, to say the least, because it showed how even women of Nooyi’s stature can internalise their second-class citizen status at home.
On the other hand, there is Chopra, who can set new benchmarks for Indian actresses professionally and break social and gender stereotypes at home. But at the end of the day, whatever she may achieve, the final question that is asked is – beta, shaadi kab karogi? (When will you get married?) Because there is no achievement as great as being seen as a dutiful daughter, good wife and a homemaker. And of course, popping out a child or two. In Chopra’s defence, at least she doesn’t propagate this image. I can’t say the same for Nooyi, in this respect.
In India sadly, Nooyi and Chopra can shake up their professional spheres as much as they want, but their ultimate achievement is only met when they become a wife and a mother. A woman’s penultimate place is in the kitchen and by her husband’s side, and like most good Indian women – even while sitting in the CEO’s chair or handing out at Oscar – we might never be able to get off this patriarchal pedestal, especially if such myopic views aren’t questioned or dismissed.