5 women who jeopardized gender hierarchies

Even today, some areas seem to be reserved for men only. Nevertheless, there are some cases of women who are able to stand out in male-dominated environments

5 mujeres que rompieron las jerarquías de género
21/12/2016 · Alexandra Maratchi

In the previous weeks of the Boston Marathon of 1967, the race organization received the inscription of K. Switzer. It was just one more name among a few thousands, except that the person hiding behind that K was Katherine Switzer, a 20 year-old woman willing to take part in an event that, at the time, was exclusively masculine. Switzer managed to run the first kilometres undisturbed, until the commissioner Jock Semple spotted the runner with the number 261 and went for her, trying to push her off the road. Only the solidarity and protection of other fellow runners allowed Katherine to be the first woman to officially complete the Boston Marathon.

We tend to think that these situations of inequality do not happen anymore, but data shows that there still are spaces that are almost vetoed for women: according to numbers provided by the United Nations, only 22.1% of the world’s political representatives are women. At the entrepreneurial level, they only represent 18% of managerial positions, a percentage that hasn’t changed much since 2002. In the tertiary sector, there is only 20% of women in high-level positions.

These are general numbers, but it is not hard to find dozens of situations in which a woman in charge still feels strange, either because of social or geographical conditionings. We have a hard time trying to imagine a woman in charge of a technological company, standing out on the media like world-class football players do, or leading a world super-power.

Luckily enough, a few pioneers like Switzer are making way by breaking the vetoes and jeopardizing gender hierarchies, leading from positions that, until not long ago, were unthinkable. 

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook

The current COO of Facebook is a model in a high masculinized world such as the New Technologies Sector. When we think of the CEO’s of the technological sector, names like Tim Cook of Apple, Jeff Bezos of Amazon or Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook come to mind. Sheryl Sandberg got into Facebook after several year managing the sales and publicity department at Google. Since 2008, she has been responsible for turning the cool tool that Facebook used to be into a money-making machine through advertisement.

Besides her career within the company, Sandberg is a guiding light when it comes to gender equality and feminine empowerment thanks to her work as the leader of the organisation Lean In, a project that started with her same title best-selling book, and which has been an inspiration and a support for women who are trying to achieve their goals, by fostering feminine leadership. 

Malala Yousafzai, Peace Nobel Prize 2014

Which alternatives does an 11-year old girl living in a Pakistani region controlled by the Taliban have left, when she is banned from school for being a woman? Standing up. That’s what Malala did, by exposing herself to western media for some time to denounce the situation in the Valley of Swat, and sharing her vision on the promotion of education among local women. She was only 15 when she almost got killed in a terrorist attack.

That made her resume her fight with greater strength than ever, and she ended up giving an emblematic speech at the United Nations on Access to Education. In 2014, Malala became the youngest person in history awarded with the Peace Nobel Prize. She is clearly one of the most influential voices in the world. 

Hu Xiaolian, Director of the Popular Bank of China

She may not be the best-known of the list, but her level of responsibility is hardly comparable. Hu Xiaolian manages the Popular Bank of China since 2005, and is a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the country. Hers is a story of effort and perseverance. After standing out as a student at the University of Tsinghua, she started her career from the lowest stratums of the Currency Exchange State Administration, and it took her up to 20 years of hard work to climb up the ladder of the organisation.

In the few public declarations she has made, she has emphasized on her motto “effort and entrepreneurship” as the basis for growth. Her role was key in maintaining the stability of assets and currencies allocated in the country during the crack of 2008. Media such as The Wall Street Journal point at her as one of the most influential women in the world.

Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post

If there is a woman standing out from the Media Management club nowadays, it’s Arianna Huffington. Often criticized for the conservatism of her political ideas and for the journalistic model established from the foundation of the Huffington Post in 2005 – based on the free collaboration of hundreds of bloggers along with recruiting famous signatures, nobody doubts her relevance in the transformation of digital communication.

The Huffington Post englobed for the first time these concepts: news aggregator, blog and online journal, aiming to jolt the sector and accelerate the adaptation of the media to the digital era. With dozens of editions spread around the globe and positioned as one of the most visited sites of the internet, The Huffington Post is already a model of successful business, and Arianna Huffington is one of the most influential voices of the mass media sector.

Saldeh Ghods, founder of the MAHAK society

Personal experiences are an engine for big initiatives. The life of this Iranian woman – Saideh Ghods, changed when her 2-year old daughter was diagnosed with cancer. Such desperate situation led her to set a determination:  if her daughter survived, she would dedicate her life to help children with cancer and give support to their families.

From that promise MAHAK was born: an association for the support of children with cancer that started locally and has ended up being an international reference nowadays. In parallel. Ghods has started several NGO’s to promote research on cancer in Iran.

By the way, Ghod’s daughter overcame her illness and managed to study an MBA at Stanford University. In a non-distant future, she may follow her mother’s steps and become one of the leading women of the world.


Check out the contents of the MOOC “Women and Leadership” and find out about more cases of women who have become role-models in their sectors. 

Alexandra Maratchi

Alexandra Maratchi