Glass Ceiling Smashers: Happy International Women’s Day!

To every woman at Bentley: you are powerful and you got this, whether “this” is surviving midterms, succeeding in the workplace, or something to overcome in your personal life. We are women in business school, soon-to-be women in business. Among the many feminist movements and icons that have enabled us to study business and become America’s future CEOs, CFOs, and other C-Suite anythings, there are the women business leaders that experienced much hardship and discrimination just due to not being men. The women leading companies and countries today are getting more and more recognition for how good they are at their jobs, such as how COVID-19 death rates were lower in women-led nations. Women are incredible leaders, but unfortunately, in the corporate world, they haven’t been given enough opportunities or enough credit. In 2021, there are currently 37 women holding Fortune 500 CEO spots, translating to a meager 7.4%. Back in June of 2017, the all-time high was 32, before rising to 41 in late 2020. Even during November of 2020’s historical all-time high of 41 women CEOs, only 3 were women of color, with zero being Black women. There is progress being made, but it has been slow, as shown by the below timeline of milestones.


1889: Anna Bissell

In 1889, Anna Bissell became the first female CEO in America after taking over the company due to her husband passing away. Bissell’s vacuum cleaners became a recognized, beloved household staple and remain popular on both a national and international level, all due to Anna’s dedication and success. Today, the company is the number one manufacturer of floor care products, holding 20% of the market in North America, based on sales.


Then, almost a century later…


1972: Katharine Graham

Katharine Graham made history by becoming the first female Fortune 500 CEO, when she become the CEO of her family’s company, the Washington Post Company after her husband’s suicide. This parent company was, of course, responsible for The Washington Post. Katharine is known for her leadership as the Post unveiled much of the Watergate conspiracy, leading to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. Katharine dealt with much sexism throughout her career, as her own father handed the company to her husband without so much as considering Katharine for the role. The sexism continued even when she was finally in charge, with male colleagues not taking her seriously. Katharine recalled having no female role models or mentors to look up to, which led her to promote gender equality for the rest of her career.


17 years later…


1999: Carly Fiorina

Carly Fiorina made history by becoming the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, and earning the historical role of being the first woman to lead a Fortune 500 Top-20 company. In 2002, Fiorina was in charge of the mechanics of the largest technology sector merger of the time, when HP acquired Compaq and became the world’s largest seller of personal computers. Also under Fiorina’s leadership, HP experienced extreme layoffs and there a tech recession  began, forcing her to resign. She then transitioned into becoming more involved in politics and sought out a political career.


10 years later…


2009: Ursula Burns

Ursula Burns made history twice in one day. Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahey left her position, and Ursula Burns, a Black woman, stepped into the C-Suite. She became the first Black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company. 2009 marked two victories: one for African-American women who finally saw representation in a C-Suite position and one for both women and allies who were able to experience a woman-to-woman hand-off of the torch. Ursula’s story is nothing less than extraordinary, when she worked up from an internship position at Xerox to becoming the CEO and leading Xerox’s acquisition of Affiliated Computer Services. Later, in 2016, she led Xerox as it split into two companies. She worked alongside United States President Barack Obama, leading the White House National STEM program in 2009, and once again when she became the vice chair of the President’s Export Council. Ursula is currently the CEO of Veon. Talk about unstoppable!


5 years later…


2014: Mary Barra

Mary Barra became the CEO of General Motors in 2014, becoming the first female CEO of an automobile manufacturer and making history in the long male-dominated industry. Mary first worked for GM when she was 18 as a co-op student. She worked her way up to become the vice president of Global Manufacturing Engineering, and then vice president of Global Human Resources. She then progressed to being the executive vice president of Global Product Development, which later was extended to include Global Purchasing and Supply Chain, before becoming appointed CEO. In 2017, she became the 12th person and 4th woman to be elected to be on Disney’s board.


History is being made every day, but some of these wait times in between huge milestones are just, quite frankly, too long. Not only that, but women continue to be disrespected and looked down on during their careers, become victims of cruel jokes, and, of course, sexism is still a very real problem. It’s not all bad though, with two powerful Black women, Thasunda Brown Duckett and Rosalind G Brewer, announced to become the CEOs of TIAA and Walgreens later this year. Check out last week’s blog on how to be an ally and truly take steps to help your women and women of color colleagues. They deserve the same amount of unlimited chances that men have been given. Especially today, though, remember to give a compliment to a powerful woman in your life. Happy International Women’s Day.


For my sources in writing this blog, click here, here, and here.


By Alina Minkova
Alina Minkova Creative Blog Curator Alina Minkova