- First ladies, political figures, and prominent businesswomen hold great power in the US.
- Kamala Harris was sworn in as the first female vice president of the United States.
- Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning monarch of the United Kingdom, has served for over 65 years.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
From the boardroom to Hollywood and the floor of the House of Representatives, women today are making their presence known.
In 2021, the wage gap may still exist between men and women â€” and even more so between different racial groups â€” but with movements such as #MeToo and Time’s Up maintaining momentum and more women involved in politics than ever before, women are also more powerful than ever.
On January 20, Senator Kamala Harris was sworn in as the first female and first Black and South Asian vice president. President Joe Biden has also recently nominated a number of women to cabinet posts.
Here are just some of the most powerful women in the world in 2021.
Kamala Harris, vice president
Kamala Harris made history in August 2020 as the first woman and first Black and South Asian woman to accept the vice-presidential nomination alongside former Vice President Joe Biden. Harris, a United States senator for California, also previously served as the attorney general of California. She was sworn in as vice president on January 20, 2021.
After being confirmed as vice president-elect on November 7,Kamala Harris addressed the nation from Wilmington, Delaware, saying, “While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last, because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”
Harris also spoke out against the pro-Trump riot at the Capitol in January 2021 and the police response, saying, “We witnessed two systems of justice when we saw one that let extremists storm the United States Capitol, and another that released tear gas on peaceful protesters last summer …We know this is unacceptable. We know we should be better than this.”
Jill Biden, first lady
After Joe Biden was confirmed as president of the United States on January 20, Jill Biden took her place as the first lady. Jill Biden previously served as the second lady under the Obama administration and has worked as an educator throughout her life – a role she will continue even when she moves to the White House.
Her areas of interest as the second lady included working with and advocating for military families, highlighting the importance of community college education, and women’s issues ranging from breast cancer prevention and gender equality in the United States and abroad.
Susan Rice, domestic policy council leader and former national security adviser to President Obama
A former national security adviser to President Obama, Susan Rice was reportedly considered for the post of President-elect Joe Biden’s vice presidential nominee. However, it was recently announced that the former Obama admin would instead be tapped to lead the Domestic Policy Council or DPC.
When announcing Rice’s position, Biden said she will work to “align domestic policy, economic policy, and national security unlike ever before,” according to NBC.
Kristen Clarke, nominee for assistant attorney general for the civil rights division of the Department of Justice
Kristen Clarke led the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee) as president and executive director prior to being nominated by President-elect Joe Biden to the position of assistant attorney general for civil rights.
Previously, she served as the head of the Civil Rights Bureau for the New York State Attorney General’s Office and worked in the areas of voting rights and election law at the NAACP Legal Defence and Educational Fund, Inc.
Following the siege of the Capitol by Trump supporters on January 7, Clarke tweeted, “This job is about justice. It’s about equality. And under our DOJ, we’ll move closer to the TRUE meaning of equal justice under law.”
Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the United States House of Representatives
Nancy Pelosi entered politics in 1987 after winning a special election in California’s eighth congressional district, which includes San Francisco. In 2002, Pelosi was chosen to be the Democratic leader of the House of Representatives.
In 2006, after Democrats took control of both the House and the Senate, Pelosi became speaker of the House. She was a critic of President George W. Bush’s stance on the war in Iraq and a proponent of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
In 2010, the Democrats lost the House and Pelosi became minority leader once again. In January 2019, the Democrats regained control of the House and Pelosi was reinstated as speaker. Pelosi became a vocal critic of President Trump and led the impeachment trial against him.
On January 3, 2021, Pelosi was re-elected as the Speaker of the House of Representatives by a narrow 216-209 vote.
Kathrin Jansen, head of vaccine research and development at Pfizer
The race to find the first effective and safe vaccine for coronavirus captured the nation’s attention in 2020, and one of the most powerful players in the search for the vaccine was none other than Kathrin Jansen, head of vaccine research and development at Pfizer.
Beginning in March 2020, Jansen led a team of 650 experts, in collaboration with German startup BioNTech, to develop a successful vaccine against COVID-19.
“She’s exactly who you want in that position. She fights for the vaccines she thinks are important,” Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Centre at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said, according to STAT. “People who think pharmaceutical companies are evil should spend time with people like Kathrin Jansen.”
Queen Elizabeth II, monarch of the United Kingdom
As the longest-reigning monarch in British history, Queen Elizabeth II has held a place of power on the world stage for over 65 years. Queen Elizabeth II was crowned on June 2, 1953, in Westminster Abbey, when she was just 27. For the first time, the coronation was broadcast globally.
Queen Elizabeth has four children – Charles, Anne, Andrew, and Edward. Charles was made the Queen’s official successor in 1969 after he was granted the title of the Prince of Wales. Queen Elizabeth II is currently 94 years old, and though the monarchy does not typically interfere with political matters, the Queen meets regularly with her prime ministers.
Greta Thunberg, climate activist
Though Greta Thunberg is only 17 years old, the young Swedish activist has started a worldwide movement for climate change and is undoubtedly one of the most powerful female forces in the world today. Named Time’s Person of the Year in 2019, Thunberg started out by holding school strikes for climate change outside of the Swedish parliament as a way to call attention to climate change.
Thunberg made national headlines in September 2019 when, after being invited to speak at the United Nations’ Climate Action Summit, she travelled from Sweden to New York City on a zero-emissions yacht. Accompanied by her father and a supporting crew, the journey took two weeks to complete.
While at the UN Climate Action Summit, Thunberg delivered her now-famous “How Dare You” speech in front of leaders, lawmakers, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing,” she said. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
Since then, Thunberg has attended many climate protests and delivered a number of powerful speeches.
Melinda Gates, cofounder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
The wife of Microsoft cofounder and billionaire Bill Gates, Melinda Gates is a powerhouse in her own right. She started working as a product manager at Microsoft in 1987, where she met her would-be husband. One of the products she worked on during her time at the company included Expedia, a budget-friendly travel resource.
In 1994, Bill and Melinda Gates started the William H. Gates Foundation with the goal of placing computers and Microsoft products in libraries across the country. In 1999, the foundation was blended with the Gates Library Foundation and the Gates Learning Foundation to form the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The charitable foundation seeks to improve education and help solve global poverty and health issues. In 2012, Melinda donated a whopping $US560 million towards efforts to increase access to contraception for women in developing countries.
In 2015, President Barack Obama presented both Bill and Melinda Gates with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for their philanthropic work.
Oprah Winfrey, media executive, actress, television producer, and philanthropist
Oprah Winfrey is best known for her award-winning talk show, “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which was on the air from 1986 to 2011. By the end of the show’s first year on television, it had grossed $US125 million, $US30 million of which went to Winfrey.
Oprah’s show was well-respected in a television landscape where many talk shows focused on tabloid topics and over-the-top-drama. Winfrey’s personable interviewing style continued to attract viewers, as did her two most famous segments, “Oprah’s Book Club” and “Oprah’s Favourite Things.”
Oprah was the first black female billionaire and became a generous philanthropist. Winfrey has advocated for girls’ education across the world and Oprah’s Angel Network has raised more than $US50 million for charitable programs.
Oprah has also acted in famous Hollywood films such as “The Colour Purple,” “The Butler,” and “Beloved.”
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook
Sandberg is the chief operating officer of Facebook and author of the best-selling book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.” Before becoming Facebook’s COO in March 2008, Sandberg served as Google’s vice president of global online sales and operations.
As Facebook’s COO, she turned the company around. Facebook, which previously suffered a $US56 million loss, improved and made $US22.1 billion in profits in 2018 under Sandberg’s leadership. Sandberg also increased Facebook’s ad revenue by 38% after touting the social media service as an advertising platform for small businesses.
Sandberg became the first female member of the company’s board of directors in 2012. In 2014, Sandberg ended up on Forbes’ billionaire list due to her high stake in Facebook. Her current net worth is $US1.9 billion.
Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube
Formerly Google’s senior vice president in charge of marketing, Susan Wojcicki has served as video-sharing website YouTube’s CEO since 2014, the longest-tenured CEO in the history of the website.
In 2000, Wojcicki enabled Google to make revenue off its famous search engine by introducing AdWords, clickable text-only advertisements that appear on Google search pages. She later launched AdSense which revolutionised how businesses and other ad purchasers used Google across the web.
Wojcicki now leads YouTube, which reportedly has more than one billion monthly users.
Shonda Rhimes, award-winning writer and producer
Shonda Rhimes is an award-winning television writer and producer. She is the creator of “Grey’s Anatomy,” the longest-running medical drama on television. Premiering in 2005, the show is currently in its 17th season and won Rhimes a Golden Globe for best television series.
Rhimes is also the creator of “Scandal,” which aired for seven seasons, “How to Get Away With Murder,” and the 2021 drama series “Bridgerton.”
Rhimes is a supporter and co-creator of the Times Up movement, which seeks to promote gender equality at studios and talent agencies and to pressure lawmakers into introducing legislation that would penalise companies that tolerate persistent sexual or gender-based harassment.
“It’s very hard for us to speak righteously about the rest of anything if we haven’t cleaned our own house,” Rhimes told the New York Times. “If this group of women can’t fight for a model for other women who don’t have as much power and privilege, then who can?”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, representative for New York’s 14th congressional district
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, often referred to as AOC, shook up the American political sphere with her election to Congress in 2018 when she defeated 10-term New York Democrat incumbent Joe Crowley, “the fourth most powerful Democrat in the House,” according to Biography.
She is the youngest woman to ever be elected to Congress and is an active member of the Democratic Socialists of America and a Bernie Sanders supporter. She is also a proponent and co-author of the “Green New Deal,” a congressional resolution that aims to provide a resolution to climate change.
During her term as a congresswoman, Ocasio-Cortez has spoken out on hot-button issues like abortion and border control, as well as cybersecurity and climate change.
Ivanka Trump, senior advisor to President Trump
Ivanka Trump is an American businesswoman, author, and former real estate developer known for being the daughter of 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump, as well as gus senior advisor.
Trump has been criticised for her access to political figures and appearances at political events since her father’s election in 2016, despite having no political experience.
In March 2017, Ivanka Trump announced she would become an unpaid employee of the White House.
“I have heard the concerns some have with my advising the President in my personal capacity while voluntarily complying with all ethics rules, and I will instead serve as an unpaid employee in the White House Office, subject to all of the same rules as other federal employees,” Trump said in a statement. “Throughout this process, I have been working closely and in good faith with the White House counsel and my personal counsel to address the unprecedented nature of my role.”
As President Trump’s term nears an end, sources told CNN that Ivanka Trump is considering a move to Florida in order to launch a political career of her own.
Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank
Christine Lagarde is a French lawyer and politician. She was the first woman to serve as France’s finance minister, from 2007 to 2011. She later became the managing director of the International Monetary Fund from 2011 to 2019, and now serves as president of the European Central Bank.
Lagarde, despite being an influential financial player in France, has been involved in a few controversies throughout her career. She is a critic of France’s shortened 35-hour workweek, and also advocated for debt relief during Greece’s ongoing financial crisis.
In December 2016, Lagarde was found guilty of negligence after being involved in a dispute concerning Bernard Tapie, who claimed that the state-owned Crédit Lyonnais had defrauded him. The lender had reportedly sold his stock in Adidas in 1993.
In 2018, Lagarde ordered the case to arbitration and Tapie was awarded a whopping €403 million (then valued at $US524 million) which caused an uproar.
Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany
Now one of the most recognisable female leaders in the world, Merkel entered politics after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Merkel joined the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) political party and was soon after appointed to serve in the cabinet of Helmut Kohl, the chancellor of Germany from 1982 to 1998, as minister for women and youth.
She later served as minister for the environment and nuclear safety and secretary-general of the CDU. In 2005, Merkel was narrowly elected German chancellor by just three seats. She became Germany’s first female chancellor and the first former citizen of the German Democratic Republic to lead Germany after it was reunited. Merkel was also instrumental in the formation of the European Union.
In 2018, Merkel stepped down as chair of the CDU. Merkel is currently serving her fourth term as chancellor but has announced she will not seek reelection as chancellor in 2021. However, she continued to be a major voice on the world stage.
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission
Ursula von der Leyen is a German politician best known as the first woman to serve as Germany’s minister of defence as well as the first woman to be elected president of the European Commission.
During her time as minister of defence, von der Leyen called for increased military spending in order to improve the state of Germany’s defence system, in which many tanks and other military objects were not deployable.
Cynthia Marshall, CEO of the Dallas Mavericks
As CEO of the Dallas Mavericks, Cynthia Marshall is the first black woman to serve as the business leader of an NBA team. Prior to joining the Mavericks in 2018, Marshall worked with AT&T for 36 years as a proponent of inclusion and diversity.
Marshall was previously named one of Adweek’s 30 Most Powerful Women in Sports and is an advocate for women’s rights through her “HASU,” Help A Sister Up, philosophy.
Mary Barra, chairman and CEO of the General Motors Company
Mary Barra has served as GM’s CEO since 2014. According to Forbes, Barra has invested billions over the years in electric vehicles, self-driving cars, and ride-share service Maven. In 2018, Barra earned $US21.9 million, the highest compensation of any leader of a Detroit Big Three automaker.
GM has ranked extraordinarily for its gender equality practices – it is one of only two global businesses that have no gender pay gap, according to Forbes. Barra is the first female CEO of GM, and the first woman to lead a major automaker.
Marillyn Hewson, chairman, president, and chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin
In 2018, Marillyn Hewson was No. 1 on Fortune’s list of the world’s most powerful women. Hewson has led aerospace and defence company, Lockheed Martin, as its CEO since 2013.
According to a previous Business Insider profile on Hewson, Fortune credited the CEO with having placed Lockheed Martin in “the sweet spot to cater to the modern military’s needs” and with “leading the charge to develop hypersonic weapons.”
Forbes reports that under Hewson’s watch, Lockheed Martin’s stock has surged more than 300% and the company is on the brink of developing an innovative, supersonic aircraft that breaks the sound barrier without a sonic boom.
Safra Catz, CEO of Oracle
Safra Catz became the sole CEO of Oracle in September 2019, when her co-CEO Mark Hurd stepped down. One month later, Hurd passed away. Catz had served as co-CEO since 2014 when Oracle founder Larry Ellison stepped down.
Ruth Porat, CFO of Google’s parent company Alphabet
As the chief financial officer of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, Porat cut spending on divisions that didn’t provide significant revenue for the company.
According to Forbes, Porat was one of just a few top female executives who participated in the Google Walkout for Real Change, which protested incidents and mishandling of sexual harassment and misconduct.
Porat has also spoken out on the subject of sexual harassment in the workplace, saying, “If you can get cars to self-drive, why can’t we solve this?”
Sonia Sotomayor, United States Supreme Court justice
Sonia Sotomayor was appointed to the United States Supreme Court by President Barack Obama on May 26, 2009. She is the first Latina woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court.
Sotomayor has been involved in multiple landmark cases, including King v. Burwell, which upheld a component of the Affordable Care Act, and Obergefell v. Hodges, which made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states. She supported upholding the under-fire aspect of Obamacare and also voted to make same-sex marriage legal nationwide.
Elizabeth Warren, senator from Massachusetts
Elizabeth Warren is a Democrat from Massachusetts who was elected to the US Senate in 2012. In 2019, Warren announced she would be running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.
Warren is a first-generation college graduate, earning her law degree from Rutgers University. In 2008, Warren led the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and in 2012 she defeated incumbent Republican Scott Brown to win her Senate seat.
During the 2016 election, she campaigned for Hillary Clinton, saying, “On one side is a man who inherited a fortune from his father and kept it going by cheating people and skipping out on debts. On the other side is one of the smartest, toughest, most tenacious people on the planet – a woman who fights for children, for women, for health care, for human rights, a woman who fights for all of us, and who is strong enough to win those fights.”
In 2019, Warren became one of the most prominent Democrats to announce their bid for the presidential race. Warren outlined her policies and announced a $US20.5 trillion plan to fund “Medicare for all,” a healthcare initiative first proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders. However, on March 10, 2020, Warren removed herself from the race.
Ilhan Omar, representative for Minnesota’s fifth congressional district
Ilhan Omar is the first Somali American to serve in Congress. A former refugee, Omar along with Rashida Tlaib are the first two Muslim-American women to serve in Congress after being elected in January 2019. The election of Omar, who wears a hijab, to the House of Representatives resulted in Congress changing its rules regarding headwear.
Ilhan Omar is a member of what people refer to as the “Squad” – four freshmen congresswomen: Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.
Despite coming under fire for reportedly anti-Semitic remarks and other comments that critics said made light of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Omar stands for what many see as diversity in the American political system.
Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand
Ardern first became associated with the country’s Labour Party when she was 17, at which time she became involved in politics and the reelection campaign of Harry Duynhoven, a Labour Party member of parliament, according to Brittanica.
Ardern later entered the House of Representatives as its youngest member when she was 28 years old and, in 2017, became the leader of the Labour Party. In October 2017, at just 37 years old, Jacinda Ardern became the youngest prime minister of New Zealand in more than 150 years.
Ardern has been praised for her administration’s quick and aggressive response to the coronavirus pandemic by issuing a nationwide lockdown and halting foreign visitation to New Zealand in mid-March. New Zealand is now considered “COVID-free,” and only 25 people have died from coronavirus in the country.
Katrin Jakobsdottir, prime minister of Iceland
Katrin Jakobsdottir has served as the prime minister of Iceland since 2017. Before becoming prime minister, Jakobsdottir served as chairperson of the Left-Green Movement after being elected in 2013. She is Iceland’s second female prime minister after Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir and does not support Iceland joining the European Union.
Jakobsdottir is an environmentalist and aims to make the country carbon neutral by 2040.
Serena Williams, professional tennis player
Serena Williams has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles and four Olympic gold medals for tennis, making her one of the most accomplished female tennis players of all time. Williams and her sister, Venus, have competed against each other numerous times over their individual careers.
Serena Williams, a proud advocate for women, has won the most Grand Slam singles titles of any man or woman in the Open Arena.
Radhika Jones, editor in chief of Vanity Fair
Radhika Jones succeeded Graydon Carter, Vanity Fair’s editor of 25 years, in 2017.
She made Vanity Fair all her own by steering away from glamorous, stylised covers and towards celebrities in a subdued style – Idris Elba in a T-shirt and a leather jacket, Kendrick Lamar in a hoodie, and Michelle Williams in a “conservative sweater,” for example.
In an interview with WWD, Jones recounted receiving praise from Donatella Versace about Michelle Williams’ cover.
“I had lunch with Donatella Versace, which was great. And she was like, ‘I love that Michelle Williams cover. That is what a woman looks like in the modern world,'” she said.
Anna Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue, global chief content officer for Condé Nast, and artistic director for Condé Nast
Anna Wintour may be recognisable for her signature bob hairstyle and sunglasses, but she is also one of the most influential and powerful women in the fashion industry.
In her early career, Wintour moved between the fashion departments of several big-name magazines as their fashion editor. In 1976, Wintour moved to New York and took over as fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar and later took a position at New York magazine.
In 1987, she became chief editor of Condé Nast-owned British Vogue. Just a year later, she took over as editor of American Vogue, revitalizing the magazine and completely shifting the entire industry’s approach. Rather than falling back on the supermodels of the 1980s, Wintour suggested that the magazine feature celebrities on its covers.
Wintour has been criticised as being aloof and cold. One of Wintour’s former assistants wrote a fictionalized account of her days at Vogue – it would eventually be made into the movie “The Devil Wears Prada,” starring Meryl Steep as the overbearing editor in chief and Anne Hathaway as her overworked assistant.
Kylie Jenner, businesswoman and reality TV star
In 2019, Kylie Jenner was named Forbes’ youngest-ever self-made billionaire after reaching success through her cosmetics and makeup company, Kylie Cosmetics. The brand first launched in 2015 with the release of her Kylie Lip Kit, which included a liquid lipstick and a lip liner.
Kylie Cosmetics has since expanded rapidly and includes a wide range of cosmetics products. In 2018, Forbes reported that Kylie Cosmetics was valued at $US800 million, and in 2019 it was valued at $US900 million. Kylie Jenner has also launched a subset of her cosmetics company, Kylie Skin.
Jenner previously owned 100% of her cosmetics brand. However, in November 2019 it was announced that fragrance and cosmetics giant Coty Inc. had purchased a 51% stake in the company for a whopping $US600 million.
Much of Kylie Jenner’s influence and power comes from her social media presence as well. As of January 2021, Jenner has 208 million followers.
Rihanna, businesswoman and musician
Rihanna first found success in the early 2000s through pop hits like “Unfaithful,” “Umbrella,” “Disturbia,” “Take a Bow,” and more. However, more recently, the musician has found mega-success through multiple business ventures, including her makeup line Fenty Beauty, lingerie company Savage X Fenty, and high-fashion clothing line Fenty, which is owned by fashion conglomerate LVMH.
Throughout her career, Rihanna has also been an advocate for women’s rights and spoken out against domestic violence, of which she was a victim of during her high-profile relationship with fellow artist Chris Brown.
“This happened to me,” she said in an interview with Diane Sawyer. “It can happen to anyone.”
Kate McKinnon, “Saturday Night Live” cast member
Kate McKinnon is one of only a few LGBTQ+ actors to be cast on hit comedy sketch show “Saturday Night Live,” and the first gay woman to be cast since Danitra Vance in the 1980s.
McKinnon won an Emmy Award for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series for her work on “SNL.” She has been praised for her impersonations of Ellen DeGeneres, Elizabeth Warren, Jeff Sessions, and Hillary Clinton, whom she appeared alongside in the 41st season premiere.
Michelle Obama, former lawyer and first lady
During Michelle Obama’s time as the first lady, she focused on the issues of poverty, healthy living, and education.
Obama attended Princeton University, where she graduated cum laude in 1985 with an undergraduate degree in sociology. She later attended Harvard Law School. After graduating, she met her future husband, Barack Obama, while practicing as a lawyer at the Chicago firm Sidley Austin. Obama was a summer intern at the time.
Michelle Obama was thrust into the national spotlight after her husband was elected as a senator for Illinois, and he later won the Democratic nomination for president. He served two terms as president, from 2008 to 2016.
Michelle Obama gave a number of powerful speeches during her time as the first lady and is regarded as an excellent public speaker. In 2016, while campaigning for presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention, she seemingly spoke out against Donald Trump and other critics, saying, “When they go low, we go high.”
Obama currently works with her husband as leaders of the Obama Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit organisation.
- Read more:
- 11 of the most powerful women who are running the 2020 presidential campaigns from behind the scenes
- 15 honours throughout history that only one woman has achieved
- 31 photos show what life was like for women 100 years ago
- 25 inspiring vintage photos of the LGBTQ community
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.