Womens role in food revolution still unfolding

by Morton Sosland
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One in five chief executives of American businesses is a woman, according to a survey done a little more than a year ago. Making a similar assessment of the U.S. food industry by just glancing at the leaders of the major food corporations, one is tempted to wonder if the food business might have an even broader base of female chief executives. In no particular order and without a claim of completeness, the list that follows underscores the influential role women have gained in the food industry. It signifies a transformation from not long ago when the absence of women corporate leaders prompted speculation whether this industry somehow resisted this gender revolution.

The list of present-day women c.e.o.’s includes:

• At the helm not just of a global leader in beverages but of the largest snack foods company is Indra K. Nooyi at PepsiCo, Inc.

• Credited with expanding a global giant in dairy and cookies and crackers and now confectionery is Irene B. Rosenfeld of Kraft Foods Inc.

• Moving a globe-circling diversified business into one focused on food, in baking and meat, has been the task of Brenda C. Barnes at Sara Lee Corp.

• Unlike the women at the helm of companies focused on consumer brands, Patricia A. Woertz leads Archer Daniels Midland Co., a far-reaching enterprise processing grains and oilseeds into ingredients for foods and for driving the economy.

• The only woman on the list to come to her position as a member of the family owners is Carrie Jones-Barber, the leader of Dawn Food Products, Inc., where she is building its business as a producer of foods and ingredients at food service outlets.

Each of these five has done a superior job. Way beyond that though is how they have guided their companies to account for significant changes in the way the food industry conducted itself in the face of the terrible recession. They are emerging from this extremely difficult period with heads held high leading companies poised for growth. Their successes are affirmed in many ways, including the fact that Ms. Rosenfeld and Ms. Nooyi are among the highest paid executives, regardless of gender, in consumer goods. Each of their companies has significant business beyond the borders of the U.S.

As tempting as it may be to attribute the success of these women c.e.o.’s to the strengths and knowledge fitting for food from being a female, it makes much more sense to conclude there is little that is different about these highly praised chief executives that is explained by their gender. Indeed, the range of responsibilities and the initiatives these five have undertaken show that no corporate task is better suited to one sex than the other. Not only have these women undertaken acquisitions, developed corporate strategies and led in the execution of plans that border on the extraordinary, but they have done this in a manner that has won the acclaim of shareholders and analysts.

Indeed, finding that the great successes of Misses Nooyi, Rosenfeld, Barnes, Woertz and Jones-Barber may not be attributed to gender helps underscore the importance of the other side of this coin — the expanding role of women in the workplace and how this is rightly identified as the principal influence driving the evolution of the American food industry. Considering that women now comprise half of the workforce is a revolution impacting every aspect of foods sold to consumers. With women now accounting for 51 per cent of professional workers, some would say the female revolution has run its course, at least so far as jobs are concerned. More will come, though, in considering the equally important social changes that will address issues of parenting, pay and working hours. Yes, the food industry has only experienced part of a revolution whose future may have an even greater effect than the past wonders.

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