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Indian Economy, Business And Finance
NEW DELHI, INDIA NOVEMBER 3, 2011: Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO of Pepsico, photographed at Adasia 2011. (Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images)
Mint—Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Indra Nooyi was Pepsi's first female CEO and is one of the most prominent female chief executives in America.

But her departure this fall means the number of female CEOs at top companies will now be even smaller. When Nooyi leaves Pepsi in October, there will be just 23 female CEOs at S&P 500 companies, according to a Bloomberg analysis of data from Catalyst, an organization devoted to encouraging more female business leaders. Roman Laguarta, the Pepsi's current president, will become its next CEO.

"These numbers are really poor, and they've been poor for a long time," says Heather Foust-Cummings, senior vice president of research and consulting at Catalyst. "When you're talking about a handful of women CEOs, that signals there is an issue of moving successfully in the pipeline."

"We're not able to really point to numbers that give us a lot of optimism for the future at the rate that we're seeing," Foust-Cummings adds.

Over the last decade, the percentage of female CEOs leading top companies has hovered around 4% to 6%, Foust-Cummings says. The organization, which once measured female representation amongst the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies instead of S&P 500 companies, found that there was a 25% decline in the number of female CEOs in these top companies between 2017 and 2018.

The stagnant stats show a need to refocus efforts on developing women business leaders and ensuring they thrive in their workplaces, Foust-Cummings says. Nooyi is arguably a prime example of this kind of leader. At Pepsi's helm for 12 years, Nooyi sustained an annual net revenue growth of 5.5% on average, reaching $63.5 billion in revenue in 2017. She was also one of few women of color to head a major company.

"Leading PepsiCo has truly been the honor of my lifetime, and I'm incredibly proud of all we have done over the past 12 years to advance the interests not only of shareholders, but all our stakeholders in the communities we serve," Nooyi said in a statement on her departure Monday. "Growing up in India, I never imagined I'd have the opportunity to lead such an extraordinary company."

Many female business leaders have detailed the importance of having more diversity in C-suite positions and boardrooms. Women and minorities often face a slew of obstacles in the American workplace — like pay inequity — and having more diversity in a company's leadership would better ensure these issues are addressed, advocates say. And seeing diversity in leadership can help inspire women and employees of color to strive for those positions, too.

"It's hugely important to be able to look up at the top of the company and see people who look like you," Foust-Cummings says.

Just as there has been little growth in female representation in the corner office, there has also been little progress on pay inequity over the last decade or so. The wage gap for women in the U.S. has even grown in some years despite awareness campaigns and high-profile efforts from some companies to review and eliminate pay gaps, according to the Institute for Women's Policy and Research.

Additionally, the #MeToo movement has brought the issue of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace to the forefront of conversation — spurring high-profile ousters of powerful men accused of sexual harassment or assault, as well as an attempted culture shift in how these complaints are handled.

Female business leaders who spoke with TIME earlier this year said having better representation in executive positions would help both close the pay gap and combat sexual harassment – creating fairer, safer workplaces where women can thrive.

"We need to do more — women and men — to create workplaces where women can really thrive, all the way through the pipeline from essentially the classroom to the boardroom," Foust-Cummings says. "We want women to be able to succeed at every level."