50 women who broke barriers in the business world
The term “glass ceiling,” defined by researchers Susan Vinnicombe and Ronald Burke as “an invisible but impermeable barrier that limits the career advancement of women,” was coined in the mid-1980s by management consultant Marilyn Loden. But long before the term existed, women faced all kinds of barriers to achieving occupational success outside the home.
Many women were denied access to higher education in the English-speaking world until the 18th and 19th centuries. Census Bureau data shows women have consistently been paid less than men for decades or longer. Some women also feel that they’ve missed out on promotions or job opportunities because of their gender, according to Gallup. Career success for women has been a struggle throughout history.
However, the challenges haven’t stopped women from making incredible achievements: National Center for Education Statistics data shows women have earned more bachelor’s degrees than male students every year for four decades. Women have become executives of companies in male-dominated spaces, including finance, entertainment, and information technology. Every year, they come closer to closing the gender pay gap, according to the National Committee on Pay Equity—perhaps the most ubiquitous barrier for all women in the workplace, from the factory floor to the executive suite.
Women are a force to be reckoned with in the business world, and to honor advancements in gender equality in the workplace, Stacker compiled a list of 50 women who have broken barriers in the business world. The methodology involved reviewing a variety of sources, including museums’ digital archives, news media, awards given to women, and books on women in business. The list includes women from a variety of industries and a range of ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. It features both historical figures and modern-day legends.
Read on to learn about 50 women who’ve smashed through the glass ceiling and paved the way for other business-savvy women to rise in the ranks. As you’re reading, know that there are still countless other success stories of women in business just waiting to be told.
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Katharine Graham broke a major glass ceiling when she became the first woman to lead a Fortune 500 company, the Washington Post Company, in 1972. InvestorPlace writer Angela Nazworth explains that Graham elevated the newspaper’s standard of investigative journalism, which uncovered the Watergate scandal under her leadership.
Eliza Lucas Pinckney
South Carolina didn’t add the first woman into its Business Hall of Fame until 1989—some 250 years after the inductee, Eliza Lucas Pinckney, made some major business accomplishments. According to Entrepreneur writer Kristin Chessman, the Antigua-born agriculturalist is best-known for “introducing blue indigo dye into continental North America” and helping to turn the pigment into the second-biggest export crop in South Carolina in the mid-18th century.
Madam C.J. Walker
Born in 1867 to former slaves-turned-sharecroppers, Madam C.J. Walker launched a collection of hair products for African American women at age 38. The company became a rapid success, eventually turning Walker into one of the richest African American women of the time. In 1917, she established the National Negro Cosmetics Manufacturers Association and used her wealth and power to advocate for Black women’s economic independence.
Lucille Ball was more than just the lovable star of the TV show “I Love Lucy” in the 1950s. After her divorce from Desi Arnaz, she bought her ex-husband out of their company, Desilu Productions, becoming the first woman to have ownership over a major television studio. The production techniques she helped develop, such as shooting in front of a live audience and using multiple cameras, are still in use today.
Despite never earning a college degree, Muriel Siebert became the first female member of the New York Stock Exchange on Dec. 28, 1967. She would remain the only woman out of over 1,360 men on the stock exchange for a decade. She successfully lobbied to get a women’s restroom installed on the New York Stock Exchange’s seventh floor, the location of the building’s lunch club.
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Maggie L. Walker
Born to enslaved parents, Maggie L. Walker paved the way for women in finance when she became the first woman to establish a bank in the United States in 1903. Walker’s St. Luke Penny Savings Bank became an important symbol of self-help for African Americans in the segregated South.
Sheryl Sandberg was the first woman elected to Facebook’s board of directors in 2012, after a four-year tenure as the social media company’s chief operating officer. Her book “Lean In”—which explained how women could achieve success in male-dominated businesses—became a best-seller the following year. Since that meteoric rise, Sandberg has dealt with blowback over her role overseeing a lobbying campaign to silence critics of Facebook users' personal information being harvested by Cambridge Analytica. She was also called to Washington D.C. in September 2018 to testify about Facebook's responsibility in Russia's interference into the 2016 election.
Ursula M. Burns
The American corporate world didn’t get its first African American woman chief executive until 2009 when Ursula M. Burns was appointed leader of Xerox. She left that role in 2017 and is now chairperson and chief executive at telecommunications firm VEON.
Beth Mooney became the first woman to serve as chief of a top-20 U.S. bank when she took leadership of KeyCorp in 2011. By 2015, KeyCorp struct a deal to acquire $40 billion-asset First Niagara Financial Group for $4.1 billion—the company's biggest deal ever. The sale closed in late 2016. Mooney plans to retire from the role in May 2020.
Emily Howell Warner
Long-relegated to the role of flight attendants, women had their path to becoming captains paved when Emily Howell Warner became the first permanent female pilot for a passenger airline in the U.S. in 1973. A year later, she entered the Air Line Pilots Association as its first female member. She would eventually become a Federal Aviation Administration examiner.
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