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We’ve Certainly Come a Long Way

Back Commentary Mar 1, 2021 By Winnie Comstock-Carlson

This story is part of our March 2021 Women in Leadership issue. To subscribe, click here.

The theme for this special annual issue of Comstock’s is Women in Leadership. But I have to say a big part of me finds that phrase redundant (almost like “men in pants”). Women have always been leaders, even when they were homemakers and stay-at-home moms. 

There are 40 women in CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies (8 percent), according to the “Women CEOs in America” report from the alliance organization Women Business Collaborative and the nonprofits C200 and Catalyst. That’s not a huge number, and most of the gains have been for white women (less than 1 percent are women of color), but let’s look at it as the glass half full — just three years ago, that number was just 4.8 percent, and there were none in 1995. Back in 1968, Virginia Slims cigarette ads were crowing, “You’ve come a long way, baby,” but that certainly wasn’t the case for women as a group in C-suite jobs. 

But individual women have come a long way. Women have run newspapers (notably The Washington Post’s Katharine Graham and The New York Times’ Janet L. Robinson); eponymous multipronged businesses (Martha Stewart); toy companies (Jill Barad of Mattel); technology firms (Meg Whitman of eBay and Hewlett Packard Enterprise) and auto manufacturers (Mary Barra at General Motors).

In my career as publisher and owner of Comstock’s for 32 years, I’ve met hundreds of women in leadership roles in their companies, many of which, like me, they founded themselves, and perhaps even bootstrapped. The days of someone approaching a woman at a business get-together and presuming she’s a secretary are gone. And that’s not meant as a criticism of secretaries. Starting in fifth grade, I wanted to be the best secretary in the world. And that’s where I cut my teeth in business — working for an irrigation district, a small real estate firm, a prominent law firm and the California Legislature in the speaker’s office (great job).  

In part, women are excellent leaders because of — not in spite of — their innate sense of compassion. I’m not suggesting men lack empathy, just that many of them are not raised or schooled to cultivate that sense of caring in the workplace. Women have no qualms about exhibiting human concern for those around them — and the more we achieve, the more we (and men) realize it’s not a sign of weakness. Being soft-hearted is different from being soft-headed, and some of the toughest bosses I’ve met, those dedicated to never compromising on excellence, are women.

The luckier ones of us have been raised to expect more of ourselves. My mom, who blessedly turned 100 last November and still is in great health, wasn’t a businessperson. She was a full-time homemaker and mother, and she loved doing that. She always encouraged me in whatever I pursued. She’s said many times throughout my life, “Honey, I just don’t know how you do it!” Those words made me think I was more accomplished than perhaps I really was, but those words always compelled me to press on no matter the obstacles — and there were plenty.

If there’s something the women featured in this issue and I have in common, it can probably be summarized in three words: Do the work. Isn’t that what it’s all about? Most women I know, and most definitely the entrepreneurs, don’t go into careers asking how many vacation days they’ll be able to accrue. They enter their professions with a determination to handle the present and improve the future. They think less about exit strategies and more about the work in front and ahead of them.

Several years ago, a longtime friend created a career “re-entry” program for women. He told me over a recent lunch that he hired women who’d taken breaks from employment to do the much harder work of raising a family and now wanted a portal back in. Most said they didn’t feel they had marketable skills because they hadn’t had “actual” jobs for a few years. He said that all he could do was think of his own mom, who was the family’s in-house juggler — master scheduler, daily bookkeeper and transportation dispatcher — and he would think, “You have no idea how much more qualified you are than some of the people working here.”

The way I look at it, women have always been in leadership. We got a very late start on business leadership, but our numbers are growing exponentially, and I am very proud of that. Though we have come a long way, we have a long way to go, but everything in life has a long way to go to become its best self. I love that women are being recognized for all they bring to the table, and we’re happy to host our annual celebration in these pages. Men in pants are welcome to attend.

Winnie Comstock-Carlson
President and Publisher

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