If someone asked you to guess the percentage of women entrepreneurs in the United States less than fifty years ago, what would you estimate? Thirty percent? Twenty percent? Ten?

Try 4.6%. That’s right, in 1972 women only owned 406,000 businesses in this country. That may seem like a lot, but when you consider that there were nearly 9 million businesses being run by individuals at that time, it’s somewhat staggering.

Compare those numbers to today, and you’ll find it has not only increased in the past 50 years, it’s virtually exploded.

As of 2018, women owned 12.3 million businesses in the United States, and over 126 million are currently running or starting their own businesses worldwide. That means that women own approximately 40% of global entrepreneurial businesses.

According to the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC), the number of women entrepreneurs has skyrocketed by 58% since just 2007. This increase is higher than businesses overall, which grew by just 12% in the same timeframe. They also note that in the past 20 years, the number of women-owned firms in the US has increased by 114%.

So the real question is why? Why are so many women leaving behind traditional jobs and starting their own companies in such impressive numbers?

A Little History

The reasons women have for starting their own businesses have largely remained unchanged in the past 50 years. Although the mid 20th century is often portrayed as being a time of traditional gender roles where women were typically expected to be homemakers and stay-at-home mothers, the truth is that women were already bucking traditional norms and working outside of the home. Often it was simply out of necessity; postwar America was not a prosperous time for everyone, especially women of color. There were also vast numbers of war widows who became single mothers overnight and had no other means of providing for themselves and their children.

But WWII changed the American landscape in more ways than just financially. Women were beginning to challenge the notion that only men could or should successfully work outside of the home or manage their own businesses. Society as a whole was beginning to change, and women were an integral part of the process. They demanded better opportunities, equal pay, and an end to sexual discrimination.

In 1963, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act which stated that equitable wages should be paid for equal work regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, or gender. The Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 which prohibited sex discrimination in the workplace. That same year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was formed.

In 1978 the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was enacted, which banned employment discrimination against pregnant women. Two years later, Republican Paula Hawkins of Florida became the first woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate without following her husband or father into the job.

With more and more legislation being passed to ensure that women would have more choices and equal rights in the workplace, the rise in the number of working women rose exponentially. Yet despite this, many women were still struggling to balance their employment with their personal lives and familial responsibilities.

As the decades passed and the divorce rate continued to increase, larger numbers of women found themselves raising children by themselves on a full-time or part-time basis. Often the wages they were making were barely enough to cover the cost of childcare and necessities.

Forbes Magazine recently reported that according to the US Census Bureau, full-time working women as recently as 2016 earned just 80% what their male counterparts made. If this trend continues at the current rate, it will take another one hundred years for women to reach pay equity with men!

It’s no surprise then that so many women began to consider a different kind of future for themselves and their families, one which would allow them to care for their children, make what they’re worth, and give them control of their own futures.

The Pioneers

Women starting their own businesses, although still relatively rare at the turn of the 20th century, was not unheard of. Sarah Breedlove (born December 23, 1867), also known as Madame C.J. Walker, was an African-American entrepreneur. She created a line of specialized hair products for African-American women in 1905 after suffering hair loss from a scalp condition. She established Madame C.J. Walker Laboratories and was also a philanthropist and a political and social activist until her death in 1919.

In 1932 at the height of the Great Depression, Olive Ann Beech co-founded Beech Aircraft Corp. in Wichita, Kansas with her husband Walter. Upon Walter’s death in 1950, she became CEO of the company and continued to serve on the Board of Directors after her retirement. In her 20 years at the helm, she transformed the company into a multimillion dollar aerospace corporation.

Estee Lauder, the founder of the legendary cosmetics company, began selling skin care products created by her chemist uncle to beauty salons and hotels in 1946. She left behind a billion-dollar legacy upon her death in 2004, but her brand continues to be one of the most successful and recognizable in the industry.

The Evolution of Entrepreneurship

Today there are more opportunities than ever for women to establish and run their own businesses. The advent of the internet and selling platforms such as Amazon, eBay, Poshmark, and Etsy have afforded women of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds to launch businesses from the comfort of their own homes.

Whether women are selling products, offering consulting services, or opening brick and mortar businesses, there are more choices than ever before on the pathway to entrepreneurship. Women are taking the leap now for the same reasons they had over 50 years ago: the flexibility it allows them to balance work and life, unlimited earning potential, being in charge of their own company decisions and direction, and sometimes even fulfilling a lifelong dream or passion.

The entrepreneurial possibilities for women are endless. Judging by the numbers, more and more women from all over the world are taking notice and joining the ranks of the women who are taking their future into their own hands.