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The Only One in the Room

Women Achievers in Business and the Cost of Success

Getting to the top in business is always tough, and for women tougher yet. While women are inventive, driven, and great managers they often face discrimination and cultural boulders blocking their path. For the few women that do get to the highest levels, on arrival they often find themselves alone—the only one in the room. Here are the stories of eight strong women who made it to the top.

Tillie Lewis and brokers, 1945

Tillie Lewis and brokers, 1945

Courtesy of Haggin Museum

This display explores the stories of eight women in business who achieved in their industries. It is important to recognize their accomplishments and consider the obstacles they overcame. These women lived in different time periods and locations, but they all faced discrimination based on who they were. Throughout their careers they often were the only one like them—the only one of their race, nationality, gender, class, or religion.

Sara Sunshine at El Laborio Restaurant, 1964

Sara Sunshine at El Laborio Restaurant, 1964

Gift of Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies

Rea Ann Silva

Rea Ann Silva

Courtesy of Beautyblender

In many of the following cases, norms of the time resulted in strict hierarchies for people of all genders. In many industries like manufacturing, finance, marketing, and beauty, some men prohibited women from taking leadership roles within companies and relegated them to positions with low status and little decision-making power. Despite this, some women worked hard to make it to the top.

 

 

Some of the women profiled here started businesses with the help of family, like Rebecca Lukens and Lillian Vernon. Others, like Tillie Lewis and Rea Ann Silva, built their businesses from the ground up. Still others, like Mary-Dell Chilton, encountered sexism even as their research resulted in breakthroughs.

Lillian Vernon by Enid Foster, about 1970

Lillian Vernon by Enid Foster, about 1970

Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

 

In racially segregated markets, women like Maggie Lena Walker, Lena Richard, and Sara Sunshine carved out their own routes to the top by prioritizing diverse communities. Their persistent hard work paid off in the form of recognition, accolades, and national awards.

Sara Sunshine's Clio Award, 1987

Gift of Sara Sunshine

View object record
New Orleans Cook Book by Lena Richard, 1940

New Orleans Cook Book by Lena Richard, 1940

Courtesy of Ashley Rose Young

 

 

The women profiled here achieved great things. Even as some women reach the top, gender discrimination persists in the workplace. In a recent national survey, four in ten women reported experiencing discrimination at work. Women earn less than men, are treated as if they are not competent, and are passed over for important assignments. Addressing the workplace barriers that women face is a priority for many companies. 

Pew Survey, 2017

Pew Survey, 2017

Courtesy of Pew Research Center