There is plenty of evidence that shows that when it comes to leadership positions, men hold most of them. Yet, women are making their presence known today, especially when it comes to female empowerment and leadership. From boardrooms to politics to protests, trailblazing women in leadership have taken giant steps to shape the world we live in.
There are many benefits and opportunities that businesses and other organizations are missing out on by not having women in leadership roles. A study shared by Forbes found out that women leaders tend to not only outperform their male counterparts but also that employees tend to work better when women are in charge – all even though people tend to hold women leaders to a higher standard.
Data, studies, and research have revealed time and time again that businesses with more diverse and inclusive representation within their leadership positions, executive roles, or board consistently outperform those with homogenous representation. Yet, despite the increasing amount of data proving the benefits of having women in leadership positions, the sad reality is that women continue to face cultural, systematic, and stereotypical barriers.
It’s time for women to get the recognition they deserve and for organizations of all industries to embrace the benefits of having influential women in leadership roles. Today, women have made significant impacts on society in all fields – whether that’s politics, art, activism, environmental sustainability, or leadership. Their wins are not only good for business, but also for society as a whole.
To celebrate, cherish, and commemorate their role in shaping society for the good, we compiled a list of the 12 most influential women in leadership today.
1. Queen Elizabeth II – Monarch of the United Kingdom
Queen Elizabeth II is the longest-reigning monarch in British history and had wielded a ton of political power over world affairs for more than 65 years now. She was crowned in a global broadcast at Westminster Abbey on June 2, 1953, when she was just 27 years old. She is credited for being one of the greatest monarchs in the history of the UK.
Today, the Queen is 95 years old and had 4 children; Charles, Prince of Wales; Princess Anne, Princess Royal; Prince Andrew, the Duke of York; and Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex. While Queen Elizabeth II does not actively interfere with political matters, she is always involved in regular meetings with the prime ministers of the UK.
She serves as a powerful inspiration for emerging women leaders after proving critics wrong and serving as an inspiration to her people. Among her most inspiring accomplishments are her leadership of the Commonwealth, her leadership in helping decolonize several countries, her escaping death twice during her tenure, and her uplifting energy and commitment she shown to her country during WWII. Today, Queen Elizabeth II serves as a powerful symbol of national pride.
2. Angela Merkel – Chancellor of Germany
Angela Merkel is a true inspiration for all aspiring female politicians. Since she became Chancellor of Germany in 2005, Angela Merkel has shaped not only Germany’s but Europe’s politics. She has been running for three consecutive terms and, while she still hasn’t decided whether she’ll run for a fourth term, her past accomplishments have had the continent eagerly awaiting her decision.
Angela Merkel’s leadership has been defined by how she overcame key moments of crisis. She is sometimes referred to as the ‘de facto’ leader of Europe due to the way she handled Greek’s economic debt crisis, kept the Euro strong and their countries integrated, and the way she has made Germany flourish economically at times when the world was hit by recessions and stimulus packages.
She has also gained popularity after shutting down 8 of Germany’s 17 nuclear reactors and positioning Germany as a leader in energy reform to help combat climate change – inspiring fellow nations to do the same. Angela Merkel is also known for boosting Germany’s minimum wage, her parent benefit initiative to support both women and men take time off work to help raise their children, and for becoming the first-ever female Chancellor of Germany.
Her tremendous accomplishments had made Angela Merkel top Forbes’ list of the most influential women in leadership several times in a row.
3. Arianna Huffington – Founder of The Huffington Post and Founder and CEO of Thrive Global
You simply cannot discuss the most influential women in leadership and not mention Arianna Huffington’s tremendous work in building her business empire and uplifting of women across the globe. Arianna Huffington is the founder of the popular liberal website, ‘The Huffington Post,’ which offers commentary and news to help people make sense of the world. She is also the author of more than 10 books.
Arianna Huffington was born in Athens, Greece, but arrived in England when she was 16 years old to pursue an economics degree at the University of Cambridge. She was the first foreign-born student to serve as president of the University of Cambridge’s prestigious debate society – i.e., The Cambridge Union. She then moved to the United States and married Michael Huffington, a Republican politician. She started her journalistic and political career as a Republican shortly after her divorce.
‘The Huffington Post was the first-ever publishing media company to win a Pulitzer Prize. The publishing giant was acquired by AOL for a whopping $315 million in March of 2011. Shen then passed to become President and Editor-in-Chief of ‘The Huffington Post Media Group’ but eventually left to start ‘Thrive Global,’ a company that offers technology to end the burnout epidemic with sustainable, science-based solutions that unlock employee performance and enhance their well-being.
Arianna Huffington became very active in several progressive causes, and the most notable one was her efforts to combat global warming. She is a perfect example of ‘What a man can do, a woman can do better.’ She has shown her mettle in politics and activism and remains one of the most influential women in leadership today.
4. Oprah Winfrey – Media Executive, Television Producer, Actress, and Philanthropist
Oprah Winfrey is not only an inspirational women leader, but she is also a role model to all young and emerging leaders today. She became popular when ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show,’ her award-winning talk show, hit the limelight. The talk show was on the air from 1986 to 2011.
The popularity of the talk show, which featured heartening stories ranging from celebrities to politicians, advisers, and ordinary people brought in a massive $125 million gross just in its first year, and up to $30 million went gallantly to Oprah.
Oprah’s well-respected TV show attracted the high and mighty, as it focused on over-the-top drama, tabloid topics, and success stories. She had a unique, personable interviewing style had a unique, yet compelling way of making people open up, and kept viewers enticed throughout, as Oprah’s talk show attracted viewers from all over the world for the two-and-a-half decades the show ran. Even her segments ‘Oprah’s Book Club’ and ‘Oprah’s Favorite Things’ were a hit with the viewers.
Oprah became the world’s first black female billionaire and is now a diehard philanthropist. She advocates for girls’ education worldwide and her famous ‘Oprah’s Angel Network’ has raised over $50 million for charitable causes. Oprah has also shown her acting chops in Hollywood by appearing in ‘The Butler,’ ‘The Color Purple,’ and ‘Beloved.’
The phrase ‘everybody loves Oprah’ couldn’t be truer!
5. Sheryl Sandberg – COO of Facebook
Sheryl Sandberg is the Chief Operating Officer of the largest social media platform in the world, Facebook. Before Sheryl Sandberg became COO at Facebook in 2008, though, she served at Google as the tech giant’s Vice-President of Global Online Sales and Promotions. She is also the author of the best-selling book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.
When Sheryl Sandberg landed at Facebook and became the company’s COO, she almost single-handedly turned it around. Before her, Facebook was suffering a tragic loss of $56 million. But under Sandberg’s leadership, the social media behemoth improved and made up to $22.1 billion in profits in 2018 alone.
Sheryl Sandberg also takes the credit for increasing Facebook’s ad revenue by approximately 38 percent after she touted the unique social media service as a powerful advertising platform for small businesses. Sharyl Sandberg became the first female member of Facebook’s board of directors when she joined in 2021. And by 2014, Forbes added her to the billionaire list due to her incredibly high stakes in Facebook.
It’s also impressive to note that her most notable accomplishments all came under an intense personal time for her. Sheryl Sandberg lost her husband in 2015 in a tragic accident while they were on vacation. She shares in her book how she struggled to find the energy and strength to face life.
Forbes estimates Sheryl Sandberg’s worth at $1.7 billion, but her business acumen and grit in a world dominated by men make her one of the most influential women in leadership to follow.
6. Anna Wintour – Editor in Chief of Vogue and Artistic Dir
She moved between several fashion departments of many big-name organizations as their fashion editor. But by 1976, she headed over to New York to become the fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar. Anna Wintour later took another leadership position at the New York Magazine.
She became Chief Editor of Cond Nast-owned British Vogue and soon took over the role of Editor of American Vogue. Anna Wintour single-handedly revitalized the magazine and completely shifted the industry’s entire approach to publishing.
Anna Wintour is credited with leading the industry change of featuring celebrities on magazine covers instead of using the supermodels of the ’80s. She may have received a fair share of criticisms for being cold and aloof, but no one doubts the power Anna Wintour wields in the fashion industry. She even starred in the movie ‘The Devil Wears Prada,’ where other notable actors like Anne Hathaway and Meryl Steep also played their roles. The Business of Fashion denominates her as ‘the most influential figure in fashion.’
7. Christine Lagarde – President of the European Central Bank
Christine Lagarde is a politician, French lawyer, and the first woman to serve as finance minister in France from 2007 to 2011. Later on, Christine Lagarde became a managing director at the International Monetary Fund. Christine Lagarde also became the first female president of the European Central Bank.
In her role as head of the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde has the tough challenge of ensuring the stability of the global financial system. The pandemic, combined with the Greek debt crisis, has made her job of balancing the Euro even harder.
Lagarde has been involved in several controversies over the years, despite her influence as a financial player in France. Nevertheless, she has remained steadfast as one of the most influential women in leadership without relenting in any way. Time and time again, she has broken all stereotypes revolving around women in the banking industry.
8. Michelle Obama – Former Lawyer and First Lady
Michelle Obama is the wife and first lady of the first black man to serve as President of the United States. During her time serving the US’s First Lady, Michelle Obama focused primarily on issues that had to do with healthy living, poverty, and education – with a focus on empowering women and under-represented people of the American society.
She attended Princeton University, where she studied sociology and graduated cum laude in 1985. Michelle Obama then attended Harvard Law School in Boston, where she met her husband, Barack Obama, after graduating and practicing as a lawyer at Sidley Austin, a Chicago firm. At the time, President Barack Obama was a summer intern, and Michelle, her boss.
Michelle Obama is best known for her powerful speeches during her time in the White House and currently works alongside her husband as leaders of the Chicago-based not-for-profit organization, The Obama Foundation, with the hope of inspiring, empowering, and connecting people to drive change in the world.
She once shared in an interview that, while in the White House, Barack and she decided to go on a casual date night to a humble small restaurant. The owner of the restaurant intrigued to see Michelle Obama, asked the US’s secret service for permission to say hi and talk to her in private. When Michelle Obama came back, her husband asked her about what she talked about with the restaurant owner. She shared that when they were younger, the restaurant owner was madly in love with her.
To that, Barack Obama told her, “So if you had married him, you would now be the owner of this lovely small restaurant,” to which Michelle Obama responded, “No. If I had married him, he would now be President of the United States.”
9. Sara Blakely – Founder of Spanx
Sara Blakely is one of the most inspiring and influential women in leadership today. She is an American entrepreneur that founded Spanx, a shapewear brand that produces and sells leggings, swimwear, and undergarments to women in more than 50 countries around the world. She is a self-made billionaire who graduated from Florida State University.
Her breakthrough came when her products were featured by Oprah in her popular talk show. From there, the sales of Spanx peaked with a zero-dollar advertising budget. Sara Blakely is not only an inspiring entrepreneur, but she is also very committed to giving back to the community.
After receiving a $750,000 donation from Richard Branson, she went ahead and built the ‘Sara Blakely Foundation,’ her own philanthropic organization. Through her foundation, Sara Blakely seeks to make the world a better place by empowering women, supporting female entrepreneurs, and advocating for women in the arts.
Not only her company, Spanx, is becoming a celebrity favorite, but she herself too. Today, she has her own class in Masterclass, is a guest judge in the popular TV Show ‘Shark Tank,’ and had a show in ‘Billions.’
10. Melanie Perkins – Co-Founder and CEO of Canva
Just as Christine Lagarde, Melanie Perkins broke all stereotypes in the tech industry after founding Canva. In the podcast, ‘How I Built This with Guy Raz,’ Melanie Perkins shares how she identified a huge void in the graphic design industry: it usually took months of training and semesters in college for graphic designers to perform their arts and visuals.
Melanie Perkins wanted to turn this situation around – she wanted to open it up to anyone who wanted to design to be able to do so – and make it look professional and visually appealing. That’s how Canva started. After pitching her idea to countless investors, she finally got one that took a chance on her.
Today, Canva is a $1 billion business and Melanie Perkins is one of the youngest female CEOs in the tech industry – an industry generally dominated by men. Her work, resilience, and dedication continue to inspire women to break the cultural and systematic barriers that they so often must overcome.
11. Mary Barra – CEO of General Motors
Marry Barra made history when she became the chief executive officer of General Motors in 2014 and becoming the first female CEO of an automaker. She is consistently named as one of the most influential women in leadership by Forbes and Fortune and in 2104, she made the cover of TIME Magazine as one of the ‘100 Most Influential People in the World.’
Marry Barra became CEO of General Motors in a tumultuous time. The GM ignition switch scandal had just taken place and more than 30 million vehicles had to be recalled. The scandal took the lives of more than 100 people and injured almost 300 others. Throughout the scandal – which is considered is one of the industry’s biggest ones – Marry Barra defended GM’s interest in court and fired more than 12 executives responsible for neglecting the ignition switch troubles when they first happened.
Moreover, since taking the lead of General Motors, Mary Barra has made difficult decisions that left many in the company doubting her skills as a leader. Decisions such as exiting the European market, simplifying GM’s car models, closing old manufacturing plants, and pushing for electric vehicles had created great controversy. Yet, time has proven that they were the right ones.
12. Kylie Jenner – Reality TV Star and Businesswoman
Forbes named Kylie Jenner ‘The Youngest-ever Self-made Billionaire’ in 2019 after achieving global success via her makeup and cosmetics company, Kylie Cosmetics. Her brand was launched in 2015 along with the release of her now popular Kylie Lip Kit, which included a lip liner and liquid lipstick.
Kylie Cosmetics has expanded rapidly since then and now includes several cosmetics products. The young entrepreneur also successfully launched Kylie Skin, a subset of her cosmetics company.
Kylie Jenner once owned 100 percent of her famous cosmetics brand. Today, however, Coty Inc., a fragrance and cosmetics giant, owns a 51 percent stake in it after purchasing it for $600 million. Kylie Jenner’s influence and power mainly come from her 243 million followers on social media.
We Ought to Celebrate Women Leaders
A recent study made by Harvard Business Review concluded that women are better leaders in times of crisis – those times when tough decisions ought to be made and a change of vision is required. Why?
In times of troubled water, people need and want leaders that are willing to pivot, take the initiative, inspire and motivate others, put their people first, show integrity, value diversity, and empathize with the stress and anxiety that times of crisis usually create. The research found that people often see these qualities more accurately displayed by women leaders.
While have a certain answer of whether women or men are better leaders will always be a subject of debate and controversy, what is certain is the fact that the world needs more women in leadership positions. History will show time and time again that having a heterogeneous and inclusive leadership team can just be the secret recipe for success.