Shattering the Glass Ceiling: The Growth of Women in Leadership Positions

The growing movement advocating for gender equality has challenged leaders across all levels of seniority and power, nationalities, and industries. Activists not only argue for gender equality as a basic human right, but they also point to examples of noteworthy female leaders who have greatly impacted the world, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Leaders like Merkel and California Senator Dianne Feinstein have successfully advocated for tough positions on controversial issues. Yet even with the inspiring successes of women like these, there is still a big gap to close and a glass ceiling to permanently shatter.

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Gains and Losses by Female Leaders

Statistics on the presence of women in politics, business, and STEM professions show progress in some respects but disappointingly lag in others. There’s still substantial progress to be made, especially in STEM professions, toward increasing the number of women in executive and stakeholder positions.

2019 saw increases in the percentage of women in various political positions compared to 2015. This includes Senate, the House of Representatives, state legislators, and state governors.

Gains in losses in business yielded mixed results. While 2017 showed boosts in fortune 500 board members and partners, 2018 saw a dip in the percentage of nationwide CEOs.

Women in STEM, meanwhile, have made gains in some fields but have lost ground in other areas. In 2016, for instance, women on corporate boards were nearly twice as likely as men to have professional tech experience. At the same time, 2018 saw a drop of female applications and systems software positions. Other positions, such as computer and math, only showed slight increases.

Challenges Women Face as Leaders

According to the Harvard Business Review, a study based on interviews with 64 senior female leaders across 51 organizations in the U.S. found that women face four unique paradoxes, each of which stems from the struggle to find a balance between niceness, a trait that society expects from women, and toughness, a trait that society expects from male executives.

There are four key paradoxes in play. According to these paradoxes, women must be demanding yet caring, authoritative yet authentic, goal-oriented yet selfless, and professional yet approachable. The first step in going beyond these paradoxes is self-awareness. To succeed as leaders, women must first be aware of when and where they encounter these paradoxes. That way, they can then make a conscious effort to navigate tense situations and lead effectively.

Women can deploy several strategies to manage these paradoxes. Some of these strategies include building collaborative relationships and trust, demonstrating authoritative behavior from a place of compassion and desire to help others, and adapting to various situation as needed.

Influential Women in Today’s World

Across the globe, women today hold some of the most powerful positions, including chancellor, CEO, senator, and executive vice president. On their professional journeys, each of the following women overcame adversity to lead and inspire not only their organizations or constituents, but also other women.

Angela Ahrendts

The former Executive Vice President of Retail at Apple, Ahrendts served as Apple’s head of retail for five years, She was paid $24.2 million in 2017, earning nearly twice as much as CEO Tim Cook. When she was there, she was responsible for creating a luxury shopping experience at Apple’s outlets.

Abigail Johnson

Before Johnson was appointed CEO and Chairman of Fidelity Investments, she held the title of president. Johnson also ranked fifth on Forbes’ Power Women 2018 list. In her position, she led an organizational push to increase diversity, and it paid dividends – 50% of company branches’ new hires in 2018 were women. As the company’s third-generation owner, Johnson also holds an estimated 24.5% stake of Fidelity investments.

Angela Merkel

In 2005, Merkel because the first female chancellor in Germany’s history. Prior to this, she served as secretary-general of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) political party from 1998 to 2000. Her political acumen has enabled her to be named the most powerful woman in the world by Forbes 12 times.

Jedidah Isler, PhD

In 2014, Dr. Isler became the first female African-American to earn a PhD in astrophysics from Yale. She’s also received fellowships from NASA, NSF, and the Ford Foundation. As founder of the STEM en Route to Change (Search) Foundation, Inc., Isler is also a vocal advocate for inclusion in STEM fields.

Madeline Albright

The Former U.S. Ambassador and Secretary of State received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. She also became the first female secretary of state in 1997, and she used positions to advocate to human rights and travel to North Korea – the first sitting secretary of state to do so. Albright was also appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 1993.

Tammy Duckworth

The first Asian American to represent Illinois as a U.S. Senator, Duckworth helped introduce the Veteran Employment and Child Care Access Act, which passed in February 2019. Duckworth also has an impressive military record; she served in the reserved forces for 23 years, received a Purple Heart in 2004, and served as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot during the Iraq war.

Dianne Feinstein

The California Senator led a six-year review of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program and supported the introduction of the nationwide Amer Alert Network. Prior to serving the Senate, she became San Francisco’s first female mayor in 1978.


Some women have managed to shatter the glass ceiling. But for many others, the journey is still uphill. Women who have reached powerful positions can serve as examples as they empower other women to fight stereotypes. Progress toward gender equality will only be possible with continued opportunities for women to thrive as leaders.

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