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How Women's Roles in Business Have Evolved

14 Aug

Although it might be surprising to hear, women have historically played a prominent role in a few key industries. In the mid-1850s, women pioneered the fields of home economics and social work.1 With the successes of women’s movements in the areas of voting rights and personal independence, women gradually became indispensable to industries as diverse as real estate, technology and healthcare. Throughout history, women's ideas, strategies and execution have helped to shape business evolution and improve how people work together.

Here's a look at how women's roles in business have evolved since the turn of the 20th century, from the percentage of women in key leadership positions, to the number of women pursuing higher education.

Female Entrepreneurs Emerge in the Early 1900s

In the early 1900s, female entrepreneurs became some of the country's first most prominent business owners.2 During World War II, from 1940 to 1945, the percentage of working women rose nearly 10%. Women did everything from repairing planes to sewing clothes to opening home-based businesses. Although some people in the immediate postwar years felt that women should return to the home to allow returning GIs to take their jobs, the end of the war didn't mean the end of women in the workforce—women continued to enter professional roles as the postwar economic boom got underway.

Women in the Workforce

Since the women’s rights movement fought to establish women’s right to work outside the home and to receive equal pay, the prominence of women in the workforce has steadily increased from the mid-1900s to today:3

  • In 1965, 39% of women were in the labor force
  • The percentage peaked at 60% in 1999, and about 57% of women are in the workforce today
  • Today, women account for about half of the American labor force

Women are increasingly taking on leadership positions within companies as well: In 1968, 31% of managerial and professional occupations were held by women, and that number has risen to 52% as of 2013.3

The Growth of Female CEOs and Executives

In the U.S., we still have a long way to go in fostering women’s success in upper management. But there have been some improvements in this area:

  • The first-ever female CEO was hired in 18894
  • The first-ever female CEO of a Fortune 500 company was hired in 1972
  • Since then, the percentage of female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies has slowly climbed, from 0.2% of all Fortune 500 CEOs in 1996 to about 5% in May 20185
  • Among corporate boardrooms, 17% of board members for Fortune 500 companies in 2013 were women, up from 10% in 19953

The State of Women-Owned Businesses

In 1972, women owned 5% of all firms in the U.S.6 That number has drastically increased in the ensuing years. According to the “2017 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report”:7

  • Women's entrepreneurship has been on the rise in the U.S. for the past two decades
  • As of January 2017, there are more than 11.6 million businesses owned by women in the U.S.
  • Today, women-owned businesses provide employment for nearly 9 million people
  • Today, women-owned businesses generate more than $1.7 trillion in revenue
  • From 1997 to 2017, the number of women-owned businesses has grown 114% compared to the overall national growth rate of 44% for all businesses
  • Today, women-owned businesses account for 39% of all American firms, employ 8% of the total private sector workforce and contribute 4% of total business revenues

Women Are Great for Business

These facts and figures suggest that on the whole, the economy benefits when women take on leadership positions and become entrepreneurs. According to one report, female entrepreneurs are 5% more likely to start innovative businesses than men.8 Other studies have shown that:9

  • In 2016, there was a 12% increase in year-over-year revenue for women-owned businesses
  • Businesses with women in the CEO or chairman role outperformed the MSCI World Index, with yearly returns of 35% compared to 11% for the broader market
  • Companies with women leaders had more profitable returns than the S&P 500 Index
  • Women-led companies experience fewer layoffs and better crisis management

Resources for Women Business Owners and Women in Business

This doesn’t mean that being a woman in business is always smooth sailing, however. Women in the workplace still face discrimination and lower pay, on average, than their male counterparts. There are many professional resources available to women in business today to help them network and succeed, including:

  • The U.S. Small Business Administration's Office of Women's Business Ownership, which was created in 1979. It fosters the participation of women entrepreneurs in the economy10
  • The American Business Women's Association, which connects female professionals and provides leadership and networking opportunities11
  • The Association of Women's Business Centers, which provides support through more than 100 Women's Business Centers in the United States12
  • The International Association of Women, which provides career and business development services and virtual and in-person networking13
  • The National Association of Women Business Owners, which advocates for female business owners through public policy change and provides strategic partnerships14

Women Are Studying to Be Business Leaders

Today, more and more, women are earning MBAs and working to change the male-dominated culture of upper management:

  • In fall 2016, 37% of full-time MBA students were female, up from 29% in 200515
  • The number of women enrolled in MBA programs has been steadily increasing since 1999
  • In 2016, women made up 45% of test takers for the GMAT exam16
Want to Be the Next Female Business Leader?

Women play an essential role in modern workplaces. The University of Kansas School of Business is proud to support the next generation of women business leaders.

If you're inspired by the women of the past and present and want to be a business leader or entrepreneur today, learn about the flexible and convenient online MBA program at the University of Kansas School of Business.

  1. Retrieved on May 15, 2018, from amhistory.si.edu/archives/wib-tour/historical.pdf
  2. Retrieved on May 15, 2018, from homebusinessmag.com/blog/success-stories-blog/women-entrepreneurs-history-women-business/
  3. Retrieved on May 15, 2018, from pewsocialtrends.org/2015/01/14/chapter-1-women-in-leadership/
  4. Retrieved on May 15, 2018, from money.cnn.com/interactive/pf/female-ceos-timeline/
  5. Retrieved on May 15, 2018, from catalyst.org/knowledge/fortune-500-ceo-positions-held-women and fortune.com/2017/06/07/fortune-500-women-ceos/
  6. Retrieved on May 15, 2018, from microbiz.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/21st-Century-Barriers-to-Womens-Entrepreneurship.pdf
  7. Retrieved on May 15, 2018, from about.americanexpress.com/news/docs/2017-State-of-Women-Owned-Businesses-Report.pdf
  8. Retrieved on May 15, 2018, from score.org/blog/state-women-entrepreneurs
  9. Retrieved on May 15, 2018, from guidantfinancial.com/small-business-trends/women-in-business/
  10. Retrieved on May 15, 2018, from sba.gov/offices/headquarters/wbo/about-us
  11. Retrieved on May 15, 2018, from abwa.org/pages/abwa-home-page
  12. Retrieved on May 15, 2018, from awbc.org/
  13. Retrieved on May 15, 2018, from iawomen.com/
  14. Retrieved on May 15, 2018, from nawbo.org/
  15. Retrieved on May 15, 2018, from usnews.com/education/best-graduate-schools/top-business-schools/articles/2017-03-14/us-news-data-a-portrait-of-the-typical-mba-student and ft.com/content/ee95b922-5d0b-11e5-9846-de406ccb37f2
  16. Retrieved on May 15, 2018, from gmac.com/reach-and-recruit-students/recruit-students-for-your-program/diversify-your-candidate-pool/research-women.aspx