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There is in every true woman’s heart, a spark of heavenly fire, which lies dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity, but which kindles up and beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity.” - Washington Irving quotes

It is no secret that women today, still struggle to climb the ladder of leadership. From Fortune 500 companies to cinema, women are still the under recognized contributors of the world.

In 2009, a mere 15 women were leaders of some of the top 500 companies and were still earning approximately 77 cents for every $1 earned by a man.

CEO Company Rank
Barnes, Brenda C. Sara Lee 199
Bartz, Carol A. Yahoo 345
Braly, Angela F. WellPoint 32
Burzik, Catherine M. Kinetic Concepts 938
Elsenhans, Lynn L. Sunoco 41
Gallup, Patricia PC Connection 985
Gold, Christina A. Western Union 451
Gordon, Ilene Corn Products International 560
Grossman, Mindy F. HSN 714
Ivey, Susan M. Reynolds American 294
Jung, Andrea Avon Products 255
Krill, Katherine AnnTaylor Stores 846
Kullman, Ellen J. DuPont 75
Lang, Linda A. Jack in the Box 685
Lau, Constance H. Hawaiian Electric Industries 655
Lundgren, Tamara L. Schnitzer Steel Industries 595
Meyrowitz, Carol M. TJX 131
Mulcahy, Anne M. Xerox 147
Nooyi, Indra K. PepsiCo 52
Robinson, Janet L. New York Times 697
Rosenfeld, Irene B. Kraft Foods 53
Sammons, Mary F. Rite Aid 100
Sen, Laura J. BJ’s Wholesale Club 269
Stevens, Anne L. Carpenter Technology 890
Taylor, Cindy B. Oil States International 698
Wilderotter, Mary Agnes Frontier Communications 834
Woertz, Patricia A. Archer Daniels Midland 27
Young, Dona D. Phoenix 863
Issue date: May 4, 2009

Source: Fortune 500 and

According to data from, 33% of women ages 25-29, earned a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2007, compared to 26% of men. The data also shows that from 2008-2009, an estimated 928,000 women were awarded a bachelor’s degree, and 391,000 were estimated to have graduated with a master’s degree. Those numbers mean that 58-60% of such degrees were achieved by women. Yet despite such achievements, many women in leadership roles, especially those women of color, are very aware of the difficulties that they still face, even today.

Tonya Lovelace is the Project Manager for Women of Color Network (WOCN), a non-profit that provides and enhances leadership capacity and resources that promote the activities of women of color advocates and activists to address the elimination of violence against women and families.  She holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, and has served as an Adjunct Instructor at several universities. As an African American woman, she feels that “it is difficult in a movement lead largely by white/mainstream women to bring forward a unique approach or perspective without push back.” She elaborates: “I have experienced much of the same thing as I moved further into leadership roles.  It is difficult to separate my experience of being “female” from being “African American”, so I have to look at the race and gender experience simultaneously.  I think that when I work with people or present myself in the world each day, I am regarded and responded to based on being a female who is African American, or an African American who is female…and there are a particular set of stereotypes of being “aggressive” or “unapproachable” and so on that are tied to being a “Black female” that can’t really be dissected.  These stereotypes follow me into the workplace, into my interactions, my training across the country…all aspects of my work.” Tonya isn’t alone in feeling this way. More importantly, it is less a matter or face, as it is a matter if gender discrimination.

Linda D. Hallman, is Caucasian and the CEO of  AAUW (American Association of University Women). She supervises the organization’s 100,000 members and donors, 1,000 branches nationwide, and more than 60 staff members. When commenting on the difficulties she faces as a female leader, she states “heading a large nonprofit that many male association executives would covet, puts me in a rather unique position. I remain concerned about the glass ceiling that exists in overall corporate leadership, including board seats. Women are part of a small and slowly growing group in Fortune 500 companies. While there are many factors that influence this, the importance of having the female perspective should never be underrated…women often battle gender stereotyping, which pits such words as “assertive” (for males) against “bossy” (for females). Whether positive or negative, gender stereotype wording rarely communicates accurate information about others.”

Since 1881 AAUW has been the nation’s leading voice promoting education and equity for women and girls. Through their vital nationwide network, AAUW influences public debate on critical social issues such as education, civil rights, and health care. AAUW also sponsors community programs, and publishes groundbreaking research on women, girls, and education. They also provide the world’s largest source of funding exclusively for graduate women, while fighting against sex discrimination in education and the workplace.

When asked, what is a recent achievement attainted by AAUW, Linda responded that one of their “recent successes include the passage by Congress and the signing by President Obama of the Lilly Leadbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009; the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which specifically adds gender to the list of protected categories.” They are “working hard to see the Paycheck Fariness Act (S. 182) move onto the president’s desk, as he has promised that he will sign that legislation. The bill expands damages under the Equal Pay Act and amends its very broad fourth affirmative defense. In addition, the Paycheck Fairness Act calls for a study of data collected by the EEOC, and proposes voluntary guidelines to show employers how to evaluate jobs with the goal of eliminating unfair disparities. The bill was passed by the House of Representatives on January 9, 2009.”

Tanya and Linda both observe the same obstacles, and as living examples of female leadership, they also have similar revelations. They believe that it is important for all women to understand the difference between equality and equity. Tanya explains that, “equality means that we are all seen in the same way in my mind…and in fact, this is not a reality.  It is not human nature to see all things the same way.  However, equity gives me a sense that, all things considered, no one is perceived as being of greater value than the other.”

Seeking such equity is today’s feminist movement. Feminists have been misunderstood by people, due to media portrayal.  But feminism isn’t about burning bras anymore and obtaining the right to wear trousers.  Linda said it best when she said, “I also must plead for women today to understand that the feminist movement of the 1960s, as well as the feminists of today, have lobbied and are lobbying for the rights of women and minorities. Feminists have fought hard to challenge and redefine traditional stereotypic gender roles. To be a “feminist” is not a negative.”

It is an unfortunate and nearly global set of double standards that are imposed on women today. It hinders their opportunities to obtain sometimes even the most basic human rights. Yet in the face of an uphill battle of the sexes, many women continue to not only fight for themselves, but for one another. This empathy, leads over 20 million women a year to choose jobs in educational services, health care and social assistance. These jobs essentially help make the world go round.

Many women have made strides that have changed the world. A very few of such extraordinary women include: 1.  Joan of Arc 1412-1431 (At the age of just 17, she successfully led the French to victory at Orleans against the English) 2. Harriet Beecher Stowe 1811-1896 (Her novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” helped to end slavery. In fact, Abraham Lincoln would later remark that her books were a major reason behind the civil war to end slavery.) 3. Marie Curie 1867-1934 (The first woman to win 2 noble prizes, the second in chemistry. She was a major contributor to developing the first X ray machine) 4. Dorothy Hodgkin 1910-1994 (She was awarded a noble peace prize for chemistry, and her work would later lead to critical discoveries in the structure of both penicillin and insulin) 5. Rosa Parks 1913-2005 (Her refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, helped spark a critical movement in American history against racism).

If these women have inspired you, and you would like to know ways on how to change the inequity for women in the workplace and in education, there are many resources available online. The Women of Color Network (WOCN) is hosting the 1st National Call to Action Institute and Conference: Supporting Women of Color Advocates and Activists Working to End Violence Against Women and Families . It is from May 10th-14th, 2010 at the Westin Canal Place in New Orleans, Louisiana. The AAUW is also conducting a conference called the 25th Anniversary National Conference for College Women Student Leaders (NCCWSL), on June 5th–7th, 2010, at the University of Maryland.

Leadership is based on the ability to lead and inspire others. In considering the next CEO or president of a firm or organization, the leader of a country or a representative for a social cause, a candidate should be measured by their knowledge, experience, trust, and merit. Gender and other physical differences should be appreciated for the diversity it brings into the world, but not as a definition of value or ability. When society can achieve such a mentality, even greater things can be accomplished to better the future of the up and coming generations.

By: Jade Kira for Diversity MBA Magazine