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13 Women CEOs Who Made History

It's now 2020, and while women have been making some impressive inroads, breaking the glass ceiling of certain industries has been a slow process.

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The C-suite gender gap

Though women comprise about 47 percent of the U.S. workforce, they make up barely a quarter of all senior executives at large U.S. public companies. The good news is that 2019 saw the highest number of female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies: 33. The bad news is that's only 6.6 percent of the list.

But what's the reason for this high-level gender gap? According to research published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, it comes down to a number of factors, including Wall Street investors valuing women-led companies less, gender discrimination and stereotyping, and social factors like being in charge of a household and childcare. Fortunately, several current and former female CEOs have blazed a trail and created a road map for high-level advancement. Here are 13 women CEOs who made history. You'll also want to learn about 15 of the most inspiring women alive today.

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Anne Wojcicki

It wasn't long ago that DNA testing was something you only saw in court cases and laboratories. But then Anne Wojcicki co-founded 23andMe, where she presently serves as CEO, and more than 9 million people have taken at-home DNA tests to find out everything from their ancestry to their potential future health risks. Whether or not you're on-board with the service and it's privacy concerns, it's been difficult to ignore the prominence of the company and service.

"I love how she launched a product that just didn't exist and even with the push back on DNA testing, she's been about to provide something globally that so many people have found helpful in their own health and family search," Gina Dunn, CEO of iGina Marketing tells Reader's Digest. Find out about 20 of the most shocking DNA test discoveries.

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Ursula Burns

When Ursula Burns became the CEO of the Xerox Corporation in 2007, she became the first African-American female CEO of a Fortune 500 company in history. "She came from a challenging upbringing to lead in corporate America," Angelique Hamilton, the founder and CEO of HR Chique Group tells Reader's Digest. "I admired her tenacity, will, and perseverance."

During her time as CEO, she transformed Xerox from a lackluster performer to a more formidable global competitor within the tech industry, according to Hamilton. "She made history through her creative mindset of moving Xerox from traditionally printers and hardware to a software and cloud-based multi-billion-dollar tech firm. It took Ursula nearly five years to achieve success, [but] it was worth every effort!" These are the women you should thank every time you use a computer.

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Resham Saujani

For many people, their first exposure to Resham Saujani was her TED talk, which has garnered nearly 5 million views since it debuted in 2016. But the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code—a non-profit she founded in 2012 to close the gender gap that exists in technology—has more than a hit video and a New York Times bestseller, Brave, Not Perfect. For example, in 2010, she was the first Indian American woman to run for U.S. Congress, though she was not elected.

"Even though she lost the election and faced multiple rejections, she did not stop and despite facing three miscarriages in the following years, she ended up founding a company that would work towards bridging the gender gap that exists in technology today," Neha Kesarwani, co-founder and CMO of Vertoe tells Reader's Digest. Find out 16 things you didn't know were invented by women.

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Mary Teresa Barra

When she was named CEO of General Motors in 2014, Mary Teresa Barra became the first female CEO of a major automaker. According to Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation.com, Barra has ensured that the customer is the center of everything at General Motors.

"Thanks to Barra's influence, General Motors is envisioning a world with zero car crashes, which will save lives," Sweeney tells Reader's Digest. "GM also wants customers to inherit a healthier planet, with zero emissions and congestion." This is all a work in progress, but it is an honorable and lofty goal. Find out about nine more incredible women you didn't learn about in history class.

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Sara Blakely

Though people had been cutting the legs off control-top pantyhose and using them as makeshift girdles for years, only Sara Blakely has turned it into a billion-dollar company: Spanx. By 2012, she was the world's youngest self-made billionaire. According to Christina Urquhart, founder and CEO of Charm City Concierge, Blakely's story is especially inspirational because she spent years hustling in her 20s as a sales trainer by day and developing her game-changing product by night. Not long after that, Oprah named Spanx one of her "Favorite Things," taking the brand to the next level.

"I admire that Sara has also placed an emphasis on supporting women across the world," Urquhart tells Reader's Digest. "She founded The Sara Blakely Foundation to fund scholarships for young women in South Africa, and she's also the first female billionaire to join The Giving Pledge—where the world's richest people donate at least half their wealth to charity." Don't miss these inspiring stories of women who are changing lives for the better around the globe.

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Lisa Lutoff-Perlo

Lisa Lutoff-Perlo began her career as a travel advisor, and within a few decades rose through the ranks to become the CEO of Celebrity Cruises. According to Marina Shumaieva, president and CTO at CruiseBe.com, Lutoff-Perlo started as a district sales manager for the vacation brand in 1985 and 20 years later became the Senior Vice President of the Hotel Operations at the Celebrity Cruises. From 2012 to 2014, Lutoff-Perlo was executive vice president of Royal Caribbean Ltd., and finally, in December 2014, she became the first female president and CEO in Royal Caribbean history. "She is a true leader in the industry," Shumaieva tells Reader's Digest. "Celebrity Cruises became the first cruise company in the world to legalize same-sex marriages on a ship. Lisa is standing for equality between men and women on the captain's bridge and in the team."

She also hired the first American woman to captain a cruise ship. "Under her leadership, the cruise company already has three captain women, and the number of women on the bridge has increased several times," Shumaieva adds. "On March 8, 2020, the first female officer team's only cruise in history should start. Lisa's inspiration, passion, and determination change the pretty conservative industry for the better." These are more famous female firsts everyone should know about.

Indra Nooyi CEO pepsiMonica Schipper/Getty Images

Indra Nooyi

Aside from being the first female CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi made history in a number of other ways. "She was arguably the first Fortune 500 executive to double down on health and wellness values—and it transformed Pepsi as a result," Nithya Thadani, CEO of RAIN tells Reader's Digest.

Despite the Indian-born American executive's accomplishments as CEO, possibly one of her greatest achievements for women was the message she shared when she stepped down from her role as CEO, according to Thadani. "She admitted regret that her career success had come at the cost of family," she explains. "To hear someone of her rank say those words out loud was powerful and important. Many women executives are conflicted in striking this balance and we need more authentic conversations like the one Indra has started." Read more about the amazing accomplishments of women, including these 13 moments that changed women's history forever.

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Angela Braly

As the CEO of WellPoint, the second-largest health insurer in the United States, Angela Braly is a major player in American healthcare. Simon Nowak, the CEO and founder of Authority Dental says that he has looked to Braly for inspiration throughout his career.

"When Angela became CEO in 2007, her goal was to 'create the best healthcare value by making healthcare fundamentally more affordable, provide access and guidance to the right care, and advocate healthy living,'" Nowak tells Reader's Digest. He also points to Braly's impressive work-life balance as an inspiration for other parents who work. "One of her quotes on this topic, which I find very true is: 'The balance doesn't come every day, but you do it over time,'" Nowak adds.

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Katharine Graham

Katharine Graham made history after becoming the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Graham began working at the Washington Post in 1938 and led the paper from 1963 until 1991. "She continued to break through further gender barriers throughout her long career," Frances Geoghegan, the managing director at Healing Holidays tells Reader's Digest. "As Graham was the only woman at the time to hold such a position, she paved the way for other females to become leaders of such companies. She faced many difficulties during her tenure as CEO, including not being taken seriously by her male colleagues and employees. While she may not have set out to become the first female CEO, her time at the paper collided with a growing women's movement and consequently led Graham to usher in gender equality within the company."

Among her many notable achievements was Graham's role in the Washington Post's uncovering of the Watergate scandal, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Graham's role was recently portrayed by Meryl Streep in the 2017 film, The Post. Her autobiography, Personal History, won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography—these are 10 more of the best autobiographies ever written.

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