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When Women Lead - Let's Get Familiar With the History and the Numbers

Updated: May 29, 2020

What happens when women lead? I wonder.

There are two important dates that women who lead need to be familiar with, and one that explains a lot of the battle we fight, regardless of position:

1787, a law was passed allowing married women, in limited circumstances, to act as “femme sole traders.” This term refers to women who were allowed to conduct business on their own, especially when their husbands were out to sea or away from home for another reason (learn more about this here). This means that 1787 was the first time that SOME women, in ISOLATED circumstances, were permitted to do business.

Fast forward, 100+ years...arriving at August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution, declaring that women would have the right to vote from that day forward. For centuries prior, women had been growing and grooming generations upon generations of educators, presidents, kings, world leaders, thinkers, inventors, innovators, explorers, scientists, mathematicians, physicians, physicists, laborers, judges, writers, and literally every other person making a contribution to society of any kind. The world could not and would not go on without the contributions of women—physically developing the next generation and giving birth to our future, and socially providing for the care and upbringing of the young and old. This raises the question of why are we,100 years beyond the 19th Amendment, still grappling with the ability to have our voices heard and valued in our homes, workplaces, and in society?

The question has nagged me. When I started writing For She Who Leads, I was captivated by the stories of women like Lucy Burns and others who worked to help women have a voice. As society moved forward, women were being recognized for their talents and abilities, taking on new obstacles and opportunities, and pressing forth in the marketplace. Yet, the unsettled feeling at the end of the day remained. I read pages and pages of first hand accounts. I listened to my more-experienced mentors talk about going to board meetings and not having a ladies room in the upper floors of the buildings. I heard horror stories about sexual harassment.

How can this be? So many talented, smart, powerful women doubting their abilities and place at the table?

So, 50 years beyond the 19th Amendment, in 1978, Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes publish The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and Therapeutic interventions. Psychotherapy: Theory Research and Practice, and give a very puzzling phenomenon a name. This phenomenon that doesn’t only affect women, but also men, at a rate of up to 70% of the population (I just posted an entire piece about the prevalence here).

This phenomenon shows up in some strangely unremarkable ways, and sadly, it is largely unreported, undiscovered, and unacknowledged by women until they hear someone else talking about it.  Someone they admire, trust, respect, or know to be authentically talented. Let me be clear here: I’m not putting myself on a pedestal, but I am shouting, LOUD AND CLEAR, that I can relate to these and have battled with more than one of them. So this is your group session. I am speaking out. If you battle this venomous, nasty little voice that questions if you are enough, then let’s fight her together. I’m wondering if women throughout history have been battling every single inch of traction that they gained from the point of being regarded as the property of the male relatives and husband, fighting for the right to have a voice and a vote, and keeping so busy that they didn’t have time to name this thing. I’m glad there’s a name, because we can fight this named enemy together.

Why is this relevant to the women who lead today? 

Perhaps the best answer is found in the numbers:

A). The number of women-owned businesses in the United States has increased for 31 out of the past 46 years, between 1972 and 2018, growing from 402,000 to 12.3 million. The 12.3 million businesses they currently own are the best proof of women harnessing their entrepreneurial spirit.

B). Women-owned firms (51% or more) account for 39% of all privately held firms and contribute 8% of employment and 4.2% of revenues (source:  

The most disturbing of my research: Women are 21% less likely than men to 

feel very optimistic about the performance of their business. The U.S. Small Business Administration reports that men and women are equally likely to feel optimistic about the way their businesses are performing, but women are 21% less likely to feel “very” optimistic.

Even with all this compelling evidence, in conversation after conversation after conversation, talented women leaders get tangled up in the question, “Am I enough”, and “What is Enough?” Next week we will dive deeper into the imposter syndrome and why we need women in positional roles, with dispositional means.

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