By Ellen McGirt
Updated: August 9, 2018 3:41 PM ET

When Indra Nooyi announced she was leaving the top spot at PepsiCo, it triggered a painful and necessary look at the plight of women in executive leadership: There are now only 22 women CEOs in the Fortune 500 index. None are black.

And while we continue to celebrate the overdue firsts — the last twelve months have seen the Fortune 500’s first openly lesbian CEO, first Latina CEO, and the NBA now has their first black woman CEO — the pipeline of CEO-ready women is thin. Recently, Denise Morrison of Campbell Soup Company; Margo Georgiadis of Mattel; and Irene Rosenfeld of Mondelez have all left the top spot. All, like Nooyi, were replaced by a man. In fact, according to data compiled by Catalyst, since 2009, only three female CEOs were followed by another woman.

The glass ceiling is entrenched, particularly for women who aren’t white.

The problems start early. The biggest gender gap strikes at the first leadership level: Women hired in as individual contributors are 18% less likely to be promoted into management than their male peers, according to Women In the Workplace, a 2017 study from LeanIn.org and McKinsey. And their data makes clear that representation goes downhill from there, particularly for women of color.

Nooyi herself pointed to the pipeline issue in an interview with The New York Times DealBook column. “I would have loved for the board to have had a woman to pick from. But at the end of the day, the board selects the C.E.O., and we just didn’t have any women who were ready for the job,” she said.

She says “high profile” women are often poached earlier in their careers to lead smaller firms, instead of sticking around to fight for the assignments that will prepare them to run a global outfit. Turns out, the traditional model of “bread-winning-husband-uproots-family-to-be-groomed-overseas” doesn’t work for everyone. “How do we give them the international experiences? We have to develop those women differently.”

Part of what she seems to be saying is that everyone needs to be developed differently. There simply can’t be a single, thirty-five year-long path to a C-Suite.

The Women in the Workplace study examines a laundry list of barriers that women experience – including the wage gap, lack of sponsorship, the burden of parenting, etc – all of which are amplified for women of color in very real ways. (Similar data on women in leadership from Catalyst, here.)

All of these insights provide fodder for best practices and remedies that could work across industries. Of course, more data is needed; to that end, I expect that as the #TimesUp movement continues to press for justice and change, there will be new ways to measure the impact of systemic contempt for professional women in the workplace.

But it’s probably worth parsing the overly broad “women of color” category, too, even informally.

What do we really know about the lives of Guatemalan-American executives? Or Pakistani entry-levels? Caribbean American high-potentials? The Filipina professionals who are left out of the “model minority” calculation entirely? How would these insights help create a leadership pipeline where all women can thrive?

Consider this must-read piece from Slate’s Tiffany Diane Tso, which explores the many ways that perceptions of Asian American women hold them back at work. Here’s just one example she cites: “For Asian American women, the model minority myth manifests itself in especially ugly forms that derive in part from our cultural fixation on Asian women as sexual objects. In a 2015 study for RacismReview, author and activist Sharon Chang researched public perceptions of women of color, including Asians, through Google’s search algorithm. Chang found that Asian women were the least likely to be viewed as leaders and most likely to be fetishized.”

One of the big takeaways of the Women In The Workplace study is the tendency of majority culture folks (in this case, white men) to believe that the modern workplace is vastly more equitable for women than it actually is.

But the numbers suggest that everyone has some work to do to understand the specific barriers faced by the many women who get lumped together in the “underrepresented” category. We can all be an ally to each other.

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