The fact that there are currently fewer female leaders than male ones is universally accepted. It's a slowly but surely changing situation, yet there's still a long way to go before the glass ceiling is shattered. Overt gender discrimination is becoming reasonably rare, but discrimination still exists.
When you look at North American Fortune 500 companies, only around 6% are led by women. Yet 47% of the U.S. working population are women, so why the enormous disparity?
Luckily, things have been shifting for a long time in favor of an equal gender balance for female leadership roles within workplaces.
Women are no longer content to sit back and accept unequal status, and hundreds of successful female leaders and entrepreneurs are paving the way. So, if you're a woman who aspires to lead or pursue entrepreneurship, then there's never been a better time to start.
Vital Lessons from the Past
Even though female leadership on the scale we know today is relatively new, there have been examples of women in leadership positions throughout history. Women have led nations, built businesses, founded religious organizations, and led social movements.
Let's look at some of the most notable examples of historical women in leadership.
Cleopatra is perhaps one of the most famous women leaders of all time. However, her infamous affairs with Roman leaders Julius Caesar and later Mark Anthony sometimes overshadow her achievements as the last Pharaoh of Ptolemaic Egypt.
Her father was King Ptolemy XII. After his death, the throne passed to Cleopatra and her ten-year-old brother Ptolemy XIII. Cleopatra was 18 at the time. During this time, Egypt suffered from a poor economy and political turmoil.
Shortly after they ascended the throne, a rift began to appear between Cleopatra and her brother. Their differences led to Cleopatra fleeing to Syria to assemble an army to take back the throne.
Eventually, it was a romantic alliance with Julius Caesar that saw Ptolemy XIII defeated and Cleopatra restored to the throne as Queen. After Caesar's death, Cleopatra was summoned to Rome by Mark Anthony, beginning her second affair with a Roman politician. Cleopatra ruled Egypt for around two decades, but there are few records of her achievements as a ruler. Most historical accounts concentrate on her influence over Roman politicians and not her own country.
It's said that Mark Antony killed himself after being defeated by his rival Octavian and believing Cleopatra to be dead. When Cleopatra discovers this, she is said to have committed suicide by being bitten by an asp. However, the location of her burial has never been discovered.
Catherine The Great
Catherine II of Russia, also known as Catherine the Great, was Empress of Russia from 1762 until she died in 1796 and was the country's longest-ruling female leader. She gained the throne following a coup d’état against her unpopular husband Peter III. Catherine herself orchestrated the coup and seized the throne.
Catherine presided over a time of growth and stability for Russia. She modernized Russia, introduced inoculations, and established the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens – the first state-funded higher education institution for girls. She also pushed back against the power the church held within the state and encouraged the development of the economy.
Catherine had a great interest in education and culture, and was a patron of the arts, and presided over the Russian Enlightenment. Her rule is commonly referred to as the Golden Age of Russia.
Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn ascended to the English throne in 1558, aged 25, after the death of her brother Edward VI.
She remained on the throne until her death in 1603 and reigned throughout significant change and growth. She introduced the first form of welfare in England and famously defeated the Spanish Armada. Elizabeth was also responsible for building on her father's legacy and transforming England into a country of Protestant faith. Her tolerant approach that allowed Puritans and Catholics to continue following their faith earned her a lot of approval. However, she still faced threats from Catholics, who wanted to see her Catholic cousin Mary on the throne.
Elizabeth was an intelligent queen with a lot of political savvy, but she was not without her critics. During her reign, Parliament became more influential, and there was conflict over several issues like religion, her refusal to marry, and trade monopolies.
Elizabeth's reign is seen as a 'golden age of English culture when Shakespeare was writing his plays and theatre became popular.
Another English Queen, Victoria, reigned for 63 years and survived six potential assassination attempts. She was the first Queen to rule from Buckingham Palace and was the longest-serving British monarch until the reign of Elizbeth II. Victoria was Queen during the rapid expansion of the British Empire, and she eventually ruled over the largest empire in history.
For the most part, she was a Queen who promoted peace and tolerance. Under her rule, all British colonies abolished slavery. She married her first cousin, Prince Albert, in 1840. Initially, Victoria ensured that Albert had no part in governing the country, but as she bore nine children, she relented and allowed him a more significant political role over time.
To quell the growing republican movement, Victoria ushered in a new era of a more visible monarchy. She became a patron of numerous charities and made hundreds of civic visits. After Albert's death, however, she withdrew from public life and spent the majority of her time at Balmoral.
Later, she reemerge into the public eye, and her Golden and Diamond Jubilees were widely celebrated across the British Empire.
When Anna Bissell's husband died in 1889, Anna became the first female CEO in the United States. She was by all accounts a very effective leader, bringing the Bissell brand of carpet cleaners and vacuums to the international market.
Under her leadership, the company went from strength to strength, and reportedly, even Queen Victoria insisted on there being a Bissell at Buckingham Palace. By 1899 Bissell was the largest organization of its kind.
Anna Bissell embodied a transformational leader, implementing labor policies like pension plans before these were the norm.
Eleanor Roosevelt was the first First Lady to take an active political role. Up until President Roosevelt's election, the function of a First Lady was purely social. However, Eleanor had been campaigning on her husband's behalf throughout his political career. She'd also established her own businesses in a factory to help Hyde Park families supplement their income and bought and taught in a girls' school.
Eleanor was not content to sit back and attend social functions when her husband was elected. Instead, she paved the way for future First Ladies by holding press conferences, writing a newspaper column, and supporting civil rights movements, among other activities.
Even after her husband's death, Eleanor continued to have political influence. She campaigned for presidents, including John F Kennedy, was appointed as a United Nations delegate, and supported civil rights movements.
Indira Gandhi was the first (and, at the time of writing, the only) female Prime Minister of India. She is also the second-longest serving Prime Minister. Gandhi served for several terms but was assassinated by her bodyguards in October 1984.
Gandhi's introduction to politics began when she served as her father's personal assistant during his own time as Prime Minister. During this time, she was elected as President of the Indian National Congress. After her father's death, she joined the cabinet as Minister of Information and Broadcasting. In 1966 she was elected as Prime Minister of India.
Gandhi took India to war with Pakistan in 1971, and under her leadership, India's armed forces were victorious. That victory led to the creation of Bangladesh, and Gandhi was the first government leader to recognize the new country.
After a challenge from the opposition party that could have seen her banned from politics for six years, Gandhi appealed to the Supreme Court. When their response was not what she anticipated, she declared a state of emergency throughout India. During this time, she assumed emergency powers, imprisoned her opponents, and passed several new laws. Many of her measures were highly unpopular and included a mass sterilization drive.
Emergency rule ended in 1977, and with it, Gandhi's tenure as Prime Minister. In 1980, however, she was re-elected as Prime Minister once more and served until her assassination. Her final term was again filled with controversy, predominantly over the handling of escalating conflict with Sikh separatists.
Barbara Jordan was both the first woman and the first African-American to deliver a keynote speech at a Democratic National Convention. Jordan studied political science and history at college and then graduated law school and passed the bar in 1960. She was inspired to become an attorney in high school after hearing a speech delivered by Edith S. Sampson.
Jordan opened a private law practice in 1960 and later won a seat in the Texas Senate in 1966. She was re-elected to the Texas Senate in 1968 and served until 1972, when she was elected to the House of Representatives. She was the first woman elected in her own right to represent Texas in the House.
Perhaps Jordan's most memorable moment was delivering a speech before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, supporting the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. Her eloquent and intelligent speech is often credited as to why Nixon resigned, recognizing that he could not defend the points that Jordan eloquently raised.
Margaret Thatcher was the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. She was also the longest-serving British Prime Minister of the 20th-century. Thatcher held office for three full terms from 1979 until 1990. She was renowned for her uncompromising leadership style and was commonly known in the press as the 'Iron Lady.'
Thatcher was always a controversial figure in British politics, primarily due to her hardline policies and her drive to privatize national services. Her popularity nosedived during a period of recession and high unemployment, and her financial and anti-unionist guidelines were frequently met with resistance from the opposition.
One of her most controversial actions was the closure of several British mines and her refusal to meet the demands of the miner's union. A year-long miners' strike ensued, and eventually, the union conceded.
During the 1980s, Thatcher was often described as the most powerful woman globally. In 1999, Time Magazine listed her as one of the most influential people of the 20th century.
The Differences in Recognized Female Leadership Roles
While history provides rich evidence that women can successfully lead, female leadership hasn't been taken seriously until more recently. One of the reasons for that is very few women rose to a leadership position in their own right. Most historical female leaders obtained their position from either privilege of birth or the privilege of marriage. Often their leadership was controversial in some way and all the more complicated for them being female.
Cleopatra had a valid claim to the Egyptian throne, but it took an alliance and an affair with a powerful man to secure her position. When the throne was confirmed, she was, by most non-Western accounts around that time, a great ruler and a keen scholar and scientist. Unfortunately, her actual achievements as a leader are glossed over in historical accounts, with her affairs taking center stage over her leadership skills. For the vast majority of women throughout history, the idea of them being able to hold the kind of positions that were open to men was unthinkable.
Of course, some historical barriers to leadership have always been class and not just purely gender. However, the fact remains that even women born to wealthy households for most of history would not have been encouraged to aspire to much beyond becoming a dutiful wife and good mother.
In the list above, Margaret Thatcher stands out as one woman who carved out a highly successful political career on the back of her achievements. However, it's interesting to note that her leadership style is often described as more masculine. More often than not, this is in a detrimental tone rather than celebratory of her strengths. She was undoubtedly more of an autocratic leader than a laissez-faire one. It could also be argued that, at times she demonstrated traits consistent with a transformational leader, for example, having the vision and ability to pull an entire country through a period of significant change. Factually, she left Britain financially stronger than she found it, regardless of people's opinions on how she achieved that. Something that is not often recognized and celebrated.
The Glass Ceiling
Historically, as just explored, there were female leaders, but they were the outliers and anomalies and often faced severe opposition. In the early 20th century, women were still not allowed to vote. And even after gaining the vote in 1920 and getting a boost on the path to equality, leadership positions remained out of reach due to a lack of equal education opportunities.
Women were still denied access to higher education opportunities, including Ivy League colleges. For example, getting a degree from a college like Harvard was impossible until 1963. And without access to those opportunities, women were poorly placed to step into leadership positions.
Fortunately, present-day situations are changing, albeit too slowly. A small number, 6% of leaders in Fortune 500 companies, are now women, but until 1972, when Katherine Graham became CEO of the Washington Post, there were none at all. So, when did thinking start to shift from leadership being a male-only occupation to it being possible for women to be considered?
This shift in mentality has only happened over the last 100 years. Even with a good college education, women were only expected to fulfill secretarial and admin roles. Few corporations would even consider interviewing a woman for a management position or a professional role. The reasoning for this inequality was accepted social gender roles – men should be the breadwinners, and women should be looking after the home and children.
It wasn't until the 1970s that these views were challenged and began to shift slightly. The Equal Rights movements influence meant women were no longer explicitly excluded from managerial roles and all professional occupations. However, there were still limits on what they could achieve. Only lower levels of management were attainable, yet, it was a move in the right direction.
The Wall Street Journal first used the oft-used term 'glass ceiling' to describe the invisible but genuine barrier preventing women from accessing higher-level leadership roles in 1986.
The glass ceiling concept caught on quickly, and eventually, U.S. Congress established an investigatory commission specifically for the 'Glass Ceiling' idea. Their report noted that the glass ceiling was driven by the notion that women were likely to quit working on starting a family. As a result, no executives were willing to hire women for important roles because of the possibility that they might start a family.
New laws were passed to prevent the overt exclusion of women from leadership roles. And as a result, over a length of time, we've seen a rise in the number of female leaders in high-level positions. So, on a positive note for women today, it's now easier than it's ever been for women to rise through the ranks of leadership. Unfortunately, the path to higher levels of leadership for women still isn't as clear as it is for their male counterparts, but the situation is progressing at a rapid pace.
It's not true that women are better leaders than men, nor is it true that men are better leaders than women. However, ability and talent are determined by many things, such as upbringing, socio-economic background, genetics, education, and the environment – not gender!
Leadership is about ability, but many inherent feminine traits lend themselves particularly well to leadership.