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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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female CEOs
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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
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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 xerox
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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!”

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Reshma Saujani, Girls Who Code
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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 CEO GM
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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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sarah blakely
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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
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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.

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Indra Nooyi CEO pepsi
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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 wellpoint CEO
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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
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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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Zhang Yin
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Zhang Yin

Known in China as the “Queen of Trash,” Zhang Yin has built an impressive empire out of recycled paper. As the founder and director of Nine Dragons Paper Holdings Limited, Yin became one of the first self-made women to join the Forbes list of billionaires. Born the eldest of eight children, Yin worked as a bookkeeper to support her family. Then, in 1985 at the age of 28, she invested her savings of $3,800 to start her own company. By 2006, Yin was one of the richest people in China, and currently has a net worth of $1.4 billion.

“In America, Zhang is less known than other women on the list like Oprah Winfrey and J.K. Rowling, but in China she is a strong role model for women with high career ambitions,” Tasia Duske, the CEO of Museum Hack tells Reader’s Digest. “Zhang firmly believes in merit, and has stated that her children’s inheritance of the company would depend on their objective capabilities.” Want to learn about more amazing women? Here are 30 women pioneers who changed the world.

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Geisha Williams PG and E CEO
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Geisha Williams

When Geisha Williams was named CEO of PG&E in 2017, she became the first Latinx female CEO to head a Fortune 500 company. In this role, she was in charge of a $30 billion firm with 20,000 employees. Under Williams, who was born in Cuba, roughly 70 percent of the company’s energy came from greenhouse-gas-free sources. In addition to her work in the business world, she has also spoken out about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). She currently serves on the board of directors of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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Carly Fiorina CEO
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Carly Fiorino

Not only was Carly Fiorino the first woman to be the head of a Fortune 50 company when she became CEO of the Hewlett-Packard Company in 1999, she also ran for the Republican nomination for president of the United States in 2016. As the head of HP, Fiorino grew the company’s revenue, while innovation tripled, growth quadrupled, and HP became the 11th largest company in the United States. Since stepping down from HP (and when not running for president), she has focused more time and energy on non-profits, including serving as the chairperson of Good360. Learn about 16 ways women still aren’t equal to men.

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Taylor Hill
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Marissa Mayer

At 44, Marissa Mayer is already a veteran of the tech industry. She was Google’s first female engineer and their 20th employee and spent 13 years working at the game-changing company. During her time there, she spearheaded Google products you likely use every day, including Gmail, Google Maps, and Google News. “Marissa makes the decisions she feels are right, and history proves that she probably calls it right,” Good co-founder Sergey Brin once said about Mayer. Then in 2012, she was named CEO of Yahoo. Though hopes were high for Mayer at Yahoo, the company wasn’t doing well when she took the helm and was eventually sold to Verizon prior to her departure. Since resigning from Yahoo in 2018, Mayer co-founded Lumi Labs, an incubator working on artificial intelligence.

Elizabeth Yuko
Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and journalist covering politics, public health, pop culture, travel and the lesser-known histories of holidays and traditions for Reader's Digest. She's always mentally planning her next trip, which she'll base around visits to medical museums or former hospitals, flea markets, local cuisine and stays in unusual Airbnbs or historic hotels.