This past year was a huge year for women.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg sparked a nationwide conversation about women and the workplace with her book, “Lean In,” Afghan parliament member Fawzia Koofi announced her plans to run for president, and fashion designer and philanthropist Tory Burch became a billionaire.
To recognise all the ways women are making major headway closing the equality gap, we’ve ranked 50 of the most notable influencers in the past year.
Our methodology was simple: we put together a list of nominees who actively contributed to instigating change this past year, and then asked Business Insider editors and reporters to weigh in on the rankings.
The Victoria's Secret model gave a powerful TED talk last year about the fashion industry's obsession with beauty, discouraging young women from pursuing careers in modelling. She has controversially said she 'has to feel guilty' working in the industry, even as she's pushing the conversation about unrealistic standards into the forefront.
Russell has also branched off into other political ventures by running the blog ArtRoots.info, which aims to encourage grassroots public art and political power; and is director of The Big Bad Lab, focused on participatory art meant to inspire people to engage in radical demonstrations to bring about positive social change.
Chef Alice Waters is at the forefront of the popular 'slow food' movement' that has gained momentum across the country.
Her culinary philosophy is rooted in the belief that the ingredients should come from local and sustainable farms. Her restaurant Chez Panisse supports a network of local farmers, and has inspired many others around the country to do the same. Chez Panisse was badly damaged by a fire in March, but is expected to reopen in June.
Waters is VP of Slow Food International, a global nonprofit organisation that promotes local farming initiatives; and speaks out about how fast food ruins culture.
Comedian Tig Notaro captured America with her vulnerable stand-up routine last August. She took the stage soon after being diagnosed with cancer, and told the audience: 'With humour, the equation is tragedy plus time equals comedy. I am just at tragedy right now.'
The androgynous 41-year-old also shared her sadness over the death of her mother, a breakup, and a threatening intestinal disease. During her routine, one guy said, 'This is fucking awesome.'
Since then, many people around the world say that she's helped them get through their own battles with cancer and other hardships.
Rent The Runway's co-founder and CEO Jennifer Hyman transformed high-end retail with her Netflix-for-couture concept.
She's raised $55 million to date, from big investors including Bain Capital and Conde Nast.
The company has hinted at an IPO and plans to use its most recent round of fundraising to build showrooms so consumers can try on outfits.
Rent The Runway also made waves this year when it decided to use real women as models, rather than the waif-thin typical fashion models.
The world stopped to honour Britain's first female prime minister when she passed away last month.
Marget Thatcher was a dominant political figure. As a member of the conservative party in Britain, she was known for supporting a free-market economic ideology, and supported her close friend and then-US President Ronald Reagan in his fight against communism, which earned her the nickname of 'Iron Lady' by the Soviets.
She poured $2.7 million into Barack Obama's campaign last year, making her the president's fourth-biggest fundraiser.
There was speculation that Wintour would segue into the political arena, but for now, she has a new job to focus on: She was promoted to Artistic Director of Conde Nast earlier this year. It's a position that was created specifically for her to have more influence over the media company's publications.
Sara Blakely is the youngest self-made billionaire in the world.
At 29, Blakely reinvented the girdle with Spanx. Now 41, she's revolutionised an industry.
Before her business venture took off she was a greeter at Disney World rides and sold fax machines door-to-door for a living. Now she makes $250 million in annual revenues and owns 100 per cent of her company, without ever needing any outside investment.
China's First Lady Peng Liyuan is a literal rock star.
The second wife of China's President Xi Jinping 'is a renowned soprano singer in her homeland, even attaining the equivalent rank of major general as a 'artist-soldier' in China's army and is well-known for her charity work.'
Since becoming the first lady, Peng Liyuan has led trips to Russia and Africa to humanize the communist regime abroad. She is also a dynamic fashion icon, known for favouring local Chinese brands over Western fashion labels. Liyuan made TIME's 100 Most Influential People list this year.
Thanks to martial arts fighter Ronda Rousey, women now fight in the UFC.
The trash-talking Olympian qualified for the Athens games when she was only 17, and was the youngest judo competitor enlisted. In 2006, she became the first U.S. female athlete in nearly 10 years to win an A-Level tournament when she took home the gold metal at the Birmingham World Cup in Great Britain.
She also graced the cover of ESPN's body issue last year.
The J. Crew president and creative director has played a crucial role in building up the company's iconic brand, changing the way America dresses.
Lyons caught the eye of J. Crew Founder and CEO Mickey Drexler, who said her collections were 'incredibly creative and like nothing I have ever seen.' She's since become a fashion icon in her own right.
And on the business side, she's helped double sales in the past seven years, bringing the company to a valuation of $1.7 billion.
Anne-Marie Slaughter got everyone in America talking with her controversial article, 'Why Women Still Can't Have It All,' published in the Atlantic last year.
The former State Department policy planning director made a bold argument that women could never achieve the ideal 'work/life balance' -- and that, frankly, there's no such thing as 'work/life balance.'
Journalist Helaine Olen took down the financial guru establishment -- including Suze Orman, David Ramsey, and others -- with her controversial book, 'Pound Foolish.'
She dismisses what has been 'accepted wisdom' in the financial world, and recommends taking a more vanilla approach to investing and managing money.
'These people are telling us, hey, just buy a few umbrellas and sand bags and no matter what wave comes your way, you're going to be fine,' she told CBS Moneywatch. 'And, by the way, they're the ones selling us the sandbags and umbrellas and they don't often disclose that.'
Harvard Professor Amy Cuddy caught everyone's attention last year with her TED talk about the art of the power pose, which has 5 million views and counting.
In her talk, she explains how small changes in the way that we stand -- holding our arms wide, taking up more space -- can make a world of difference in how we feel about ourselves and how we convey a sense of power to others.
Cuddy told CNN that, 'as a researcher, I'm moved beyond words by these strangers' willingness to share such personal stories of vulnerability, and I'm humbled and astounded to see how this research has resonated with people outside my science.'
Fawzia Koofi could be Afghanistan's first female president.
Already the first female deputy speaker of the Afghan Parliament and the vice president of the country's National Assembly, she announced her plans to run in the 2014 election.
She's a strong supporter of women's rights in her country and abroad, undoubtedly propelled by her past. Unwanted by her own mother, she was left out to die in the sun when she was a baby. Now she has made equal rights a fierce part of her life mission.
Serena Williams currently ranks No. 1 in women's singles tennis, and is one of the greatest players of all time.
To date, Williams holds 15 Grand Slam singles and 13 Grand Slam doubles titles, as well as four Olympic gold medals. She won the 2012 US Open in 'epic fashion' beating then-No. 1-ranked Victoria Azarenka 6-2, 2-6, 7-5.
She's never been afraid to show emotion on the court; and she's also made bold statements in the world of fashion, on and off the court.
Jacqueline Novogratz has transformed what is now venture philanthropy.
She founded and leads the global non-profit The Acumen Fund, which takes an entrepreneurial approach to eradicating poverty. The idea is to use market-oriented strategies to help revitalize depressed economies. Instead of handing out grants, the fund invests in companies and organisations that deliver useful products to the developing world.
This Indian American astronaut holds the record for the longest space flight and most space walk time for a woman.
She was also a United States Navy officer and was awarded a Navy Commendation Medal twice, a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, a Humanitarian Service Medal and other service awards.
She started out as a flight engineer after being recruited by NASA; and in her two most recent expeditions last year, Williams spent four months aboard an orbiting laboratory. The mission earned her the sixth spot on the all-time U.S. space endurance list.
Mindy Kaling is one of the creative geniuses behind the Emmy Award-winning series, 'The Office.' She's a writer, director and co-executive producer for several of the show's episodes, and was named one of TIME's 100 Most Influential People for her work.
She launched a new series, 'The Mindy Project,' on FOX this fall; and recently starred in the Five-Year Engagement and Wreck-It Ralph.
Roberta Kaplan gained national attention for her Supreme Court argument against the defence of Marriage Act, the Clinton-era law that says the federal government doesn't recognise same-sex marriage.
'The minute I heard the facts of the case, it took me about three seconds to decide that it was absolutely the right case to bring,' Kaplan told Business Insider. Her firm, Paul, Weiss, took on the case free of charge.
Kaplan has been honored by several organisations, including the National organisation for Women, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Gay Men's Health Crisis and the New York County Lawyers' Association.
The director, producer and screenwriter has made a huge impression on Hollywood and beyond.
Kathryn Bigelow's recent films The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark 30 became controversial box office hits for turning recent American military operations abroad into action movies. In 2008, The Hurt Locker won six Oscars, including Best Picture, and Bigelow became the first woman and the only woman to date to win the Best Director award for the same film.
Valerie Jarrett is a longtime supporter of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle. She knew the couple years ago in Chicago, and has stuck by their side ever since, protecting their reputation and becoming one of their closest confidants.
She's now a senior advisor and assistant to President Obama and was co-chair of the Obama-Biden presidential transition team.
Before moving to Washington, she was a force in Chicago -- as a lawyer serving in the city government, as director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, leading a property development firm, and taking on finance chair when President Obama ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, among other things.
Fashion designer Tory Burch officially became a billionaire this year.
She launched Tory Burch LLC 10 years ago in her kitchen, and brought in $800 million in revenue in 2012. She's most famous for her signature ballet flats, but her line has expanded well beyond that.
She's also a notable philanthropist, launching the Tory Burch Foundation in 2008, which provides economic opportunities to women and their families.
Ginni Rometty is the chairman and CEO of IBM, the first woman to head the multinational company. She officially took on the role in January 2012.
Since then, she has strived to refocus the company on innovation and catering to clients' needs. And it seems to be paying off. The 55-year-old businesswoman was voted The Most Powerful Woman in Business by Fortune last year.
She was paid about $16 million last year--arguably not enough compared to other male CEOs--but she's paving the way for other budding businesswomen.
Christine Quinn has been the Speaker of the New York City Council since 1999, making her the first female and first openly gay person in office.
She's known for her brash tactics, but there's no doubt that she gets things done. Since she's been in office, she's built more affordable housing, expanded early childhood education, provided opportunities for small businesses, and worked to make the city more sustainable. She's currently fighting to raise the smoking age to 21.
Now she's running for New York City Mayor and is considered a frontrunner, under the wing of current Mayor Michael Bloomberg. If she wins, she'll be New York City's first female and first openly gay mayor.
After dropping out of college in 2006, Sophia Amoruso began selling a curated collection of cool vintage clothing on eBay as a hobby, calling her site Nasty Gal.
Nasty Gal is such a success story because despite the fact that it has no stores and little official marketing, it has a loyal fan base that's been won through social media. Nasty Gal has over 97,000 followers on Twitter and over 720,000 followers on Instagram.
Amoruso is only 28, but she's already worth about $250 million, according to Forbes. She recently raised $40 million in venture funding for Nasty Gal while still holding on to most of her company.
Zaha Hadid is one of the most prominent female architects in the world, known for building gorgeous, futuristic designs.
She's probably best-known for the London Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park; Maxxi, the National centre for Contemporary Arts in Rome; and the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan.
She was the first woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize (the Nobel Prize of her field) in 2004, and has continued to be rewarded for her work. She also won the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2010 and 2011, and the 2013 Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Award.
The British-Iraqi architect has spoken out about misogyny in the architecture field, saying that 'I am sure that as a woman I can do a very good skyscraper. I don't think it is only for men.'
Though she's notoriously difficult to work with, she's still blazing a trail for all future women architects.
After being shot in the head by a crazed gunman in 2011, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords spent years recovering--but she miraculously lived.
Now she's become an outspoken advocate for gun control, speaking at Senate Judiciary Committee hearings and fighting the NRA. She wrote a compelling Op-Ed piece for the New York Times after the Senate failed to reach a consensus on gun control in April.
President Barack Obama appointed Julia Pierson as the Director of the Secret Service in March.
She was already the highest-ranking woman in the agency, but now she is the first woman to head the Secret Service.
Pierson is expected to reform the male-dominated agency--especially in light of last year's sex scandal in Colombia, when several secret service agents reportedly solicited prostitutes.
The widow of Apple guru Steve Jobs stepped out into the spotlight this year as an advocate for immigration reform for the first time since her husband's death in late 2011.
She is helping to promote a documentary called 'The Dream Is Now,' which pushes for an overhaul of the American immigration system. She said that she wants the children of undocumented immigrants to be allowed to stay in the U.S.
Sonia Sotomayor has been an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court since 2009. When she was sworn in, she became the first Hispanic justice and its third female justice.
But this year has been a landmark year for the 58-year-old judge. In addition to weighing in on several big issues, like affirmative action, gay rights, and ruling that marijuana is not a deportable offence for immigrants, she also revealed a lot about her personal life in her memoir 'My Beloved World,' which released in January. The book discusses her difficult childhood and adolescence, and the path she took to get to the Supreme Court.
After overcoming breast cancer a few years ago, the anchor of Good Morning America publicly battled a life-threatening blood disease called myelodysplastic syndrome this year.
She took a six-month leave from work to get chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, and returned to work in February.
Meanwhile, she's become an icon of strength who is upbeat and optimistic despite her illness.
Elizabeth Warren made headlines this year when she won a seat in the U.S. Senate, becoming the first female Senator from Massachusetts.
Previously a professor at Harvard Law School specializing in bankruptcy law, Warren is an expert on the economy and personal finance. She sits on the Senate Banking Committee, which regulates the banking industry. She's also been a harsh critic of the SEC and other government financial organisations.
She's reportedly writing a book about her time on the Hill after the financial crisis called 'Rigged.'
This has been an incredible year for comedian, writer, producer, and actress Tina Fey.
The 42-year-old star hosted the Golden Globes with Amy Poehler, starred in a film called Admission, and wrapped up the final season of 30 Rock, the landmark sitcom which she writes, produces, and stars in.
Meanwhile, she cemented her legacy as one of the most important female comedians and writers, paving the way for other women to succeed in comedy.
We don't know her name, but we know that she is one of the most powerful spies in the U.S. -- and maybe the world.
This undercover agent has temporarily taken over the role of Director of the CIA's Clandestine Service (she is currently being considered to permanently assume the role), making her the first woman to hold such a high post in the organisation.
Senior officials at the CIA are reviewing her file to see if she'd be a good fit to permanently take over the position. The hesitation seems to stem from the fact that she helped run the CIA's detention and interrogation program after 9/11 and she also signed off on a decision in 2005 to destroy videotapes of prisoners being tortured.
Brittney Griner is arguably the best women's college basketball player of all time.
The 6'8' athlete totally dominates the court in nearly every game she plays for her college, Baylor. She has dunked 18 times in her NCAA career--more dunks than every other woman who has dunked in a NCAA game combined. She was also the second all-time scorer in women's NCAA history, with 3,283 points and the top shot-blocker ever, with 748 blocks, according to ESPN.
She was the number one draft this year, and was selected by the Phoenix Mercury.
Griner is making people take women's basketball seriously and is paving the way for more girls to play in the future.
She's also made news recently, since she casually told Sports Illustrated that she was gay. She said that she sees herself as a gay role model for girls.
Reshma Saujani is the founder of Girls Who Code, a nonprofit organisation that teaches teenage girls to code and develop their technology skills. Teaching girls to code will close the gender gap in the tech field and enable women to compete and advance their careers.
Saujani is also running for New York City Public Advocate. She's the former Deputy Public Advocate of New York City, but this will be her second attempt to enter politics (she ran for Congress in 2010, but lost in the Democratic primary). Her run was still notable as she was the first Indian-American woman (and the first South Asian American woman) to run for Congress--an achievement in itself.
She wrote a book called Women Who Don't Wait in Line, which will be released later this fall.
Angela Merkel has been the Chancellor of Germany since 2005 and the Leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) since 2000, the first woman to hold either office.
Recently, she played a crucial role in the Eurozone crisis, imposing austerity measures on Greece and Italy while trying to rescue the euro and restore balance to a wavering Europe.
Merkel is one of the most controversial figures in Europe, but in her home country of Germany she remains incredibly popular.
Marissa Mayer took the tech world by storm last year when she become the CEO of Yahoo in July 2012.
The Google alum hit the ground running, and has already made several big improvements for Yahoo, including redesigning the website, unveiling a new Yahoo email system, and making some big acquisitions, like acquiring Summly for $30 million.
In addition to her role as Yahoo CEO, Mayer also serves on the board of Walmart and is an active angel investor.
In October, Mayer and her husband Zachary Bogue had a baby boy. She says she disclosed her pregnancy to Yahoo's headhunter when contacted about the CEO position, and the company expressed no issue with it. She decided not to take a full maternity leave, instead returning to work to make a bigger, better Yahoo.
Now she's a working mother, who's running a company and a family. She even built a nursery in her office. Mayer proves that it is entirely possible to have a successful career and family at the same time.
Since becoming the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation in 2007, Janette Sadik-Khan has been on a mission to make New York City a more green and livable place.
She has already made parking signs easier to read; improved bus lanes and implemented more efficient Select Bus Service; created 23 pedestrian plazas and green spaces in public areas like Times Square and Madison Square Park; and created created over 285 miles of bike lanes, car-free summer streets, and pedestrian walks.
And in April, she announced Citibike, the city's new bike share program. Of course there might be some issues with the new program, but New Yorkers seem to be clamoring to be involved, as thousands of people have already registered.
Her goal is to transform the city streets, and reinvent New York City as a livable, green place.
'We're looking at our streets as valuable public places, and we need to make it easier and safer for people to walk around and bike,' she wrote in a Bloomberg story.
Mary Jo White is currently the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
When she was sworn in in April she became the first female head of the SEC, making her arguably the most important woman in U.S. finance.
Even though she's just at the start of her reign as head of the SEC, she is expected to take a hard stance in pursuing the law and go after white collar criminals.
Previously, White was the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 1993 to 2002 (and the first woman to be in that role), as well as the First Assistant U.S. Attorney and later Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York from 1990 to 1993.
Over a harsh Moscow winter of protests against Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian government, three young women -- part of a feminist punk rock performance group called Pussy Riot-- emerged as the unlikely global stars of the Russian opposition.
In February 2012, the women staged an anti-Putin performance, called 'Punk Prayer,' in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the saviour , calling for the Virgin Mary to 'chase Putin out.' Pussy Riot's greatest achievement wasn't the performance that got them arrested though.
It was their casual cool in the face of the overreaction of Putin's Russian state. The closing statements in their trial were eloquent and damning criticisms of the government that ended up jailing the members for 2 years each.
Even though they're imprisoned, the women are still speaking out against Putin and the government.
Malala Yousafzai is just 15 years old, but she's already become an international symbol of girl's education.
The Pakistani teen has been outspoken about educating girls since 2009, when at the age of 11 she began blogging for the BBC under a pen name, following the Taliban's mandate that banned all girls from attending school. She continued to attend school despite the ban and the Taliban's destruction of 150 schools until she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman in October 2012.
She survived the attack and has since become a symbol of resistance in Pakistan, inspiring other young girls to seek out an education. She's now back in school and writing a memoir that will be published in the fall. She's also the youngest nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize in history.
Hillary Clinton retired as U.S. Secretary of State this year--only after she traveled to 112 countries and spent a total of 401 days on the road, making her the most-traveled Secretary of State in history.
While in her former role, she brokered peace between Israel and Arab militants in the Gaza Strip, she helped liberate Libya by encouraging Obama to support the Libyan rebels in overthrowing Moammar Gadhafi, and she negotiated the release of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng.
Meanwhile, her popularity skyrocketed, giving her her highest approval ratings yet (69% when she resigned as Secretary of State in January)--ripely positioning her as a favourite for the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The COO of Facebook became a household name this year, after the March release of her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.
Her book argues that women are often their own worst enemies, self-sabotaging their careers before they really begin. Lean In has received tremendous backlash from critics who say that her argument only applies to elite, educated women and ignores everyone else, including poor women and black women.
But there's evidence that her Sandberg's ethos is already working. Since the release of Lean In, women at various companies have reportedly already been speaking up and asking for more money and promotions that they believe they deserve. Sandberg is arguably inspiring a whole generation of women to rise to the top.
The wife of Microsoft founder Bill Gates has put her billions to good use.
Since starting the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 1994, she's turned it into the world's largest philanthropic organisation with an endowment of $36.4 billion. In 2012, the foundation gave out $3.4 billion in grants.
She's always been a women's health advocate, but in the last year she decided to make family planning her signature issue. After speaking to women in impoverished, developing countries all over the world, she realised that she could significantly improve their lives if she got them access to birth control.
So she's put her plan into action and is raising $4 billion to fund the plan that will give more than 120 million women access to contraceptives by 2020. The plan will also research new contraceptive methods, which will affect all women around the world.
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