A Brief History of Women in Leadership

As Women’s History Month comes to a close here in 2021, let’s celebrate women who have made an impact on our history, culture and society and recognize the efforts of those who challenged the status quo and didn’t back down.

In most cases, advances in freedoms and opportunities for women came after years of grass-roots efforts by women’s advocacy groups.  Laws protecting women’s rights are relatively new in history and seeing women in top leadership roles is still uncommon, despite the fact that women make up more than 50% of the population in both the US and Canada.

So just how far have we come? Here are a few milestones.

Voting Rights

Change comes when voices can influence laws and policies. In the US, it was just over 100 years ago that women were given the right to vote. The 19th Amendment to the US Constitution was passed in 1919 and ratified in 1920, allowing women to have a true voice in politics for the first time in the US. In Canada, the right to vote differed by province, with suffrage (the right to vote) given to women in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta in 1916. The federal government granted full suffrage in 1918, but women in Quebec did not receive full voting rights until 1940!

Breaking the Glass Ceiling

It was 1972 before American newspaper executive Katharine Graham became the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, the Washington Post Company. As the only woman to be in such a high position at a publishing company, she had no female role models and had difficulty being taken seriously by many of her male colleagues and employees.  In her memoir, she details her lack of confidence and distrust in her own knowledge.  But with the convergence of the women’s movement with her new position at the Post, Graham’s attitude changed and led her to promote gender equality within her company.

In 2021 Kamala Harris became the first woman, the first person of color, and the first person of Indian descent to be sworn into high office as Vice President of the United States. It was only 100 years ago that women first won the right to vote. Now a woman occupies the second most powerful leadership role in the United States. Vice President Harris credits the women that came before her who helped pave the way and break down walls.

Has there been progress made for women in leadership?

During the first quarter of 2021, 41 women are leading Fortune 500 companies. While this is progress, it still shows that less than 10% of Fortune 500 companies have a female in the top leadership role. According to McKinsey and Lean In’s most recent “Women in the Workplace” report, the number of women in the C-suite (executive level managers within a company) grew from 17% to 21% between January 2015 and January 2020. This shows improvement in women’s representation in leadership in the business world, but we have a lot of ground to cover before we reach equity.

There are ways that we, as a society, can work together to empower women and support the goal of gender equality, specifically in business. It’s important that everyone participates and is heard. If a female colleague is interrupted, speak up and say that you’d like to hear her finish. Openly ask women to contribute to the conversation. Women take on more office “housework” such as taking notes, organizing events, and training new hires. Pay attention to who volunteers for different types of work and do your part to help distribute office housework equally, not just among women. Don’t assume that mothers won’t be willing to take on challenging assignments or travel. Always be willing to present the opportunity and put it in her court.

Let’s continue to elevate and celebrate women so that they can persist in impacting history, our culture and society.

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