Women have been leaning in since before the phrase was coined, and we’re finally seeing some real progress. Since I entered the workforce as a secretary in the 70s and forged a name for myself in the 80s, a lot has changed, and overall the trend is a positive one. Though battles remain for women far and wide, my own experience serves as a reminder of the hurdles we’ve collectively overcome.
Others have said it, but it bears repeating, that we are finally entering a golden age of female entrepreneurship. This new age will give the economy a boost and help increase employment opportunities for a diverse range of people—men included! If developments in the next thirty years are as significant as those in the past, our future is most certainly a bright one overflowing with female empowerment.
But don’t just take my word for it; listen to my story and those of other women who have been there. I think you’ll find that what we’ve experienced is illustrative of progress made, and progress still to come.
Growing up: Unprecedented goals
As the daughter of an immigrant butcher, monetary success did not always seem like a goal in the cards for me. I often say that the best thing my father did was be poor: he would get up at the crack of dawn and work 14-hour days, a demonstration of hard work and perseverance. Though my own hardships are nothing compared to those of my parents, who survived the Holocaust, I credit my all of my grit to them.
A drive to live my life on my own terms has dwelled within me since I was a child, when I desperately wanted to be respected, successful, and financially independent someday. For a man, this kind of ambition was all but assumed. For a woman, it was virtually unheard of.
How many little girls are told they can do anything they want by people who believe it? I like to think that in the 21st century, it’s most. Today, business skills are nurtured in children of both genders, through smart parenting as well as toys that promote entrepreneurship. Though progress is not always linear, young girls have better odds of success than ever before.
Growing up, there were no iconic female leaders I could model myself after or see myself in. I’m certain other girls my age didn’t realize entrepreneurship was an option available to them for this very reason. But this, too, has changed dramatically. Young women today can look to female leaders–both in the public and private sector–and emulate their successes.
Entering the workforce: Unchartered territory
After graduating high school in 1974, my real journey began. I landed a job as a secretary late that year at a real estate management firm for a small salary of $115 a week. This role was a learning opportunity and the first of many stepping stones, though it turned out I was better suited for management. I stepped into a role as property manager, and started Bach Realty Inc., an all-female real estate brokerage, after college. I became the first woman to own a commercial firm in New York City at the age of 23.
As a young professional woman I was definitely an outlier, and felt this fact keenly in an industry full of men. Today (as I’ve written about before) ambitious young women are no longer anomalies. Girls are no longer expected to stay at home, and though gender stereotypes still persist when it comes to career development, most women are prepared to enter the workforce after school.
Opting out of the workforce in today’s economy is rarely a realistic option. Career expectations are placed on both men and women, meaning there is more competition, but also greater equality. That doesn’t mean things are easy. When I started working I was following my dreams, while many of today’s young people are following the motions just to get by, and if they’re lucky, discover where they fit into a changing economy.
Entering the workforce can be a struggle for anyone, but today’s young female professionals, at the very least, benefit from having female peers and a culture that values their worth.
Launching a business: A test of strength
When I started at Bach, I borrowed 2k from a friend and made $100k in my first year. All of a sudden, I was off and running. A lot of hard work, persistence, and a little luck helped me achieve my goal of entrepreneurship and succeed beyond my wildest dreams.
But the 80s weren’t the easiest time for a woman to launch a successful business. As Sheryl Sandberg discussed in her 2013 book “Lean In,” ambition was (and often still is) viewed as a negative trait in women. As Sandberg describes, the trip to the top for a woman is more like a jungle gym riddled with obstacles than it is a ladder. I was determined not to be shaken by this. Instead, I made being the only woman a positive and used it to my advantage.
Just as I lacked female role models as a child, I didn’t have any women to emulate when I was building my business. Even better, there are support groups today specifically for women that provide invaluable resources and connections for female entrepreneurs.
Next steps: Crunching numbers, breaking barriers
The past 40-odd years have blessed us with more than just anecdotes like my own; now, we have the numbers to prove why it matters. Today’s women not only have example of successful female entrepreneurs, but the data to support their worth.
For example, research has shown that startups with female leadership outperform those with men at the helm by 63%. Studies also indicate that female leadership has an edge when it comes to overall effectiveness, emotional intelligence, communication, and teamwork.
In addition, the barriers to entry for female entrepreneurs have been significantly lowered. In the 70s and 80s, the entire world was a barrier. This is no longer true! Part of this change is thanks to technology, which has cut the costs of launching new initiatives, and the changing nature of work, which allows for more flexible solutions like freelancing. There are also more funding opportunities for women than ever before.
Still, implicit bias could linger for a very long time. This is evident in the fact that women still only comprise just 4% of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies, and are subjected to double standards in and out of the workplace. While this could take years to overcome, I have great faith in how progress is unfolding.
I look forward to a future filled to the brim with female success and representation, and if you want a robust economy, you should too. Let’s break that glass ceiling together and discover just how much we’re capable of achieving. Progress may not always be a straight line, but if the trajectory continues upwards, the sky’s the limit.