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A recent study by and McKinsey & Co. found that women in business environments often don’t get the same challenging assignments or promotions as their male colleagues, and don’t feel their contributions aren’t taken seriously. These days, this is an issue that most businesses at least claim to worry about. But that’s a relatively recent development.

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In a 1998 paper for Gender and Business, Kathy Peiss described the role of women in business in the early twentieth century, an era when most male executives were perfectly comfortable with blatantly excluding women from positions of power.

As businesses worked to develop consumer markets around the turn of the twentieth century, Peiss writes, the kinds of jobs deemed appropriate for women were very limited. The emerging marketing and advertising arms of corporations were seen as masculine realms where rationality and efficiency reigned supreme.

But Peiss notes that another gender dynamic was also at work. As consumerism became a bigger economic driver, consumers were defined as women. Advertisers and marketers identified women as households’ “chief purchasing agents” and sought to understand “the habits of women, their methods of reasoning, and their prejudices.”

Some businesswomen seized on corporations’ need to communicate with these mysterious creatures. Peiss points out that it was a tricky way to seek advancement, since it could mean leaning on their nature as women rather than their training and experience. But it was a way into a job. By 1924, more than 40 percent of the buyers in department store purchasing departments were women. Significant numbers of women also found work editing magazines’ “service departments,” doing market research for manufacturers, and handling advertising accounts for fashion, food, and housewares companies.

Businesswomen formed associations within the advertising, merchandizing, and advertising industries. Partly, this was simply a response to being barred from men’s organizations, but it also helped them define feminine business niches. Business networks developed among women who knew each other through women’s colleges, female corners of the business world, and the suffrage movement.

But serious institutional barriers remained for businesswomen. Women were barred from professions like perfumery and pharmacy, denied access to credit, and denied jobs like sales agent that required traveling alone.

In many cases, women developed alternative paths to the masculine corporate world. In the early 1900s, Annie Turnbo Malone and Madam C.J. Walker each built highly successful operations by developing hair-care products for African-American women and training agents to sell them in their own communities.

Still, Peiss writes, the business press of the time tended to identify female-oriented industries as something other than real business. In 1935, Fortune published a story dismissing the work of women like cosmetics magnate Elizabeth Arden. “Elizabeth Arden is not a potential Henry Ford,” the author wrote. “She is Elizabeth Arden. It is a career in itself but it is not a career in industry.”

Today’s business press is far more eager to celebrate successful businesswomen, but the LeanIn study suggests that plenty of biases against female business leaders remain.


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The Business History Review, Vol. 72, No. 2, Gender and Business (Summer, 1998), pp. 218-241
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