By Adrienne L. Way, Edcor Owner and CEO
The history of women in business in America began in early colonial days. Women with talent, drive and education made historic landmark contributions. Today, women like this continue today to be dynamic leaders. Women’s History Month celebrates the contributions of women in American history. This month also presents a time to ensure that women in business today will continue to have opportunities to excel.
Women’s History Month began in 1981 when Congress proclaimed the week beginning March 7 as Women’s History Week. In 1987 Congress extended the recognition of women’s achievements and declared March as Women’s History Month. This month the United States celebrates the contributions of women in business, science, technology and the arts.
The history of women in business includes women with in a variety of fields, with varied interests and talents. Issues that were important to these early pioneers of women in businesses are the same issues that are important today.
Four leaders of women in business
Catherine Anselm “Kate” Gleason was a leader in fields traditionally led by men. She accomplished many “firsts” for women in fields of engineering, finance and construction. She worked for her father at the family-owned machine tool company when she was only 11 years old. At Cornell University and Sibley College of Engraving & Mechanics Institute she studied mechanical engineering. In collaboration with her father she invented a machine that produced beveled gears. She led the sales and finance division of the family business for more than 10 years. She became the first women president of a bank when the president of First National Bank of Rochester joined the military during World War I. She invented a new method of pouring concrete and was the first women member of the America Concrete Institute and the American Society of Mechanic Engineers.
Mary Katherine Goddard was a printer in early colonial days. She started her career working in her brother’s printing company, publishing the Providence Gazette and later the Pennsylvania Chronicle. In 1774 she took over completely running her brother’s business and printed Baltimore’s first newspaper, The Maryland Journal. She was responsible for the first printed copy of the Declaration of Independence and in 1789 she became the first woman in America to open a bookstore. She also served as the Baltimore postmaster for 14 years.
Jane Addams recognized the importance of education for women. She graduated at the top of her class at Rockford Female Seminary in 1881. She was a progressive social activist. She took on problems that are still current today: daycare for working mothers, job training, and worked to establish a juvenile court system. She was the first woman to receive a Nobel Peace Prize.
Juanita Morris Kreps was an important business and political leader. During Jimmy Carter’s presidency, she was the first woman to be US Secretary of Commerce, and was only the fourth woman to hold a cabinet position. She studied economics earning her master’s and doctorate degrees at Duke University. She was interested in advancing the position of women in business. She was a director of the New York Stock Exchange, Eastman Kodak and JC Penney. About 50 years ago she wrote a book that covered challenges of working women in America: Sex in the Marketplace: American Women at Work. She also co-wrote a study covering issues that are still current today: Sex, Age and Work: The Changing Composition of the Labor Force. She believed it was important for businesses to support the best interest of minorities, women, the environment and low-income families.
Growth opportunities for women in business
Businesses that support employees with tuition assistance and other education benefits are in position to increase opportunities for women in businesses. And these businesses that encourage women pursue education will be part of a growing global trend. In 2019, statistics from Grant Thornton, a network of professional services, showed 29 percent of women in senior leadership positions globally. While this is an improvement of about 9 points since 2012, there is a lot more opportunity for women in business to move into leadership positions.
Comprehensive education benefit plans, such as the plans Edcor develops for its wide variety of clients, will strengthen the positions of women in business. More women pursue higher education than men at all levels of education, but they are still underrepresented in business education. The numbers of women in business programs has increased, but there is room to grow. In 2011 32.3 percent of women were enrolled in MBA programs compared to 38.5 percent in 2019. Businesses with tuition assistance are in position to increase the number of women in business education.
Increasing the opportunity for women in business is important for employees, but also for business success. “There is a significant research base demonstrating a strong correlation between diversity at a leadership level and business results,” says Kim Schmidt, Grant Thornton Global leader of leadership, people and culture. “In today’s complex, volatile environment, organisations need to be responsive and innovative. And we know there is a direct link between innovation and diversity. Lasting diversity can only be achieved by committed action to promote women, through sponsorship and support, by creating opportunities.”
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