Majorities of Americans see men and women as equally capable when it comes to some of the key qualities and behaviors that are essential for top leaders in politics and business. Yet women still make up a small share of top leadership jobs in both of these realms. Our 2018 report explores Americans’ views about women leaders, the barriers they face and prospects for the future. Below, we’ve charted the most up-to-date data on the share of women in top U.S. political and business roles over time.
At the start of the 117th Congress in 2021, there were 26 women serving in the U.S. Senate, a historic high. However, this number dropped to 24 on Jan. 20, soon after the start of the congressional term, as Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) became vice president and was replaced by a male appointee and Raphael Warnock, the winner of the Georgia runoff election, replaced Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.). Of the 24 female senators, 16 are Democrats and eight are Republicans. Twenty-one of these women are White, while one is Hispanic and two are Asian American. There are no Black women currently serving in the Senate. The first woman in the Senate was Rebecca Felton (D-Ga.), who was appointed to the seat as a political maneuver in 1922 and served just one day. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.), who served in the Senate from 1978 to 1997, was the first female senator who was not initially elected to fill an unexpired congressional term.
There are 118 women serving as voting members of the House of Representatives at the outset of the 117th Congress, comprising 27.3% of House members. Of these, 89 are Democrats, unchanged since 2019, and 29 are Republicans, up from 13 in the 116th Congress. In addition, four women serve as nonvoting delegates to Congress, representing American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Jeannette Rankin (R-Mont.) was the first woman to be elected to Congress, taking office in 1917. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is the only woman to have served as speaker of the House. She was speaker from 2007 to 2011, served as the House minority leader in the Republican-controlled house from 2011 to 2019 and was elected speaker again in 2019. The 118 women in the House include 24 Black women, 12 Hispanic women, seven Asian American/Pacific Islander women, two Native American women, two multiracial women and one Middle Eastern/North African woman. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), chair of the Republican Conference, is the highest ranking Republican woman in the House.
Women make up 28.1% of state senate seats and 31.8% of state house or assembly seats. Seventeen women serve in one of the top leadership posts in state senates, and an additional seven are speakers of state houses. In 2019, Nevada became the first state with a majority-women state legislature and women hold a 58.7% majority of the Nevada state legislature in 2021. West Virginia has the smallest share, at 11.9%. The first women to serve in a state legislature were three Republicans elected to the Colorado House of Representatives in 1894.
To date, 44 women have served as governors in 30 states. In 2021, six Democratic and three Republican women are serving as governors. Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming, a Democrat, was the first female governor; she was elected in a special election in 1924 to succeed her deceased husband. Ella Grasso, a Connecticut Democrat, was the first female governor elected in her own right, in 1975.
President Biden’s Cabinet nominees include 12 women out of the 25 positions he has designated as Cabinet or Cabinet-level. If his slate of nominees is approved by the Senate, Biden’s presidential Cabinet will have the highest share of women in history. Until now, the share of women concurrently serving in Cabinet-level positions peaked during President Bill Clinton’s second term, at 40.9%. Under Biden, three of the top Cabinet posts – the vice president, secretary of treasury and director of national intelligence – would each be held by women for the first time. However, looking only at the Cabinet positions that are in the presidential line of succession, a smaller share – 37.5% – are women. This is still higher than under any previous president. Biden’s picks include four White women, three Black women, two Asian American women, one Hispanic woman, one Native American woman and one multiracial woman. The first woman in a Cabinet-level position was Frances Perkins, appointed as secretary of labor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. To date, seven women have served as labor secretary, more than in any other Cabinet or Cabinet-level position.
Fortune 500 CEOs
The share of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies reached an all-time high of 7.4% in 2020, with 37 women heading major firms. No Black or Hispanic women head Fortune 500 companies, while three Asian American women serve as CEOs. The late Katherine Graham, of The Washington Post Co., was the first female CEO to make the Fortune 500 list, in 1972. As recently as 1995, there were no female CEOs on the Fortune 500 list.
Fortune 500 board members
The share of women sitting on the boards of Fortune 500 companies has been gradually increasing for decades, rising from 9.6% in 1995 to 27.0% in 2019. While women remain statistically underrepresented on Fortune 500 boards, 2019 saw a particularly sharp increase: 44% of new appointments to boards in 2019 were women. Between 2016 and 2018, the number of Black women holding board seats increased by 26.2%, the number of Hispanic women increased by 9.8% and the number of Asian women increased by 38.6%.
In 2016, 30.1% of university presidents were women, triple the share in 1986. Frances Elizabeth Willard became the first female college president in 1871, heading the Evanston College for Ladies in Illinois, which later merged with Northwestern University. In 1975, Lorene L. Rogers was the first woman to lead a major research university (University of Texas), and Judith Rodin in 1994 became the first permanent female president of an Ivy League institution (University of Pennsylvania).
Note: This interactive was originally published in January 2015. It was updated in January 2021 to reflect more recent data.