LST.10.06.14.Sheryl Sandberg
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg Jonathan Sprague—Redux

From Martha to Sheryl: how success for women has changed

Oct 28, 2014

Do you doubt for a second that women are moving up in the business world? If so, I have an assignment for you. Watch MAKERS: Women in Business, premiering at 9 p.m. EST tonight on PBS.

This hour-long documentary is the latest product from an enterprising producer named Dyllan McGee, who began several years ago by asking Gloria Steinem to let her make a film about her. When Gloria said "No"—proclaiming that any documentary about the rise of women should not be only about her—McGee rerouted, persuaded AOL (aol) CEO Tim Armstrong to fund a broader project, and created an ambitious online series of video interviews with leading women and a bunch of hour-long programs for TV.

McGee should be featured in her own film about successful women in business.

But back to my main point, which is that women leaders have made greater strides over the decades than you think. Glass ceilings be damned. Seriously.

MAKERS: Women in Business, airing tonight, begins with a look at the three M's—which is my name for the trio of devil-may-care blond powerhouses who, back in the 1960s when big corporate jobs were open only to men, found success by going outside the system. Mary Wells Lawrence founded ad agency Wells Rich Greene and became the top woman in advertising. Martha Stewart started a catering company on her way to becoming a self-created global brand. Muriel Siebert was the first woman to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange.

I know Martha, but I never met Lawrence or Siebert, who were ahead of my time. It's the second part of MAKERS: Women in Business, which is about businesswomen in the 90s, where I can relate. And here you notice a very different type of female power emerging. MAKERS looks at Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard (hpq) chief who was No. 1 on Fortune's first Most Powerful Women in Business list in 1998, and other MPW CEOs such as current HP chief Meg Whitman and Xerox (xrx) CEO Ursula Burns, who broke through the existing corporate infrastructure. You'll see me in the film. commenting about mid- 2006 when Kraft Foods (kft), ADM (adm) and PepsiCo (pep) all named women CEOs. This was "a moment" when women proved they could get ahead in the corporate world the same way men do.

And yet, traditional business still doesn't—and I think won't ever—satisfy some of the smartest and most ambitious women. MAKERS shows former banker Sallie Krawcheck building her own firm, Ellevate, plus Spanx founder Sara Blakely, Rent the Runway co-founder and CEO Jenn Hyman, and of course Facebook (fb) COO Sheryl Sandberg, whose Lean In movement is her global entrepreneurial endeavor. You get the sense that today's female entrepreneurs have it a bit easier than Martha and Muriel and Mary Wells Lawrence did.

"The great thing about this age is, women are allowed to have any ambition," says former Ogilvy & Mather (wppgy) CEO Shelly Lazarus in the documentary. Lazarus has wonderful perspective, having been a pioneer (she was one of the first female grads of Columbia Business School) and also one of the stars I featured in my first-ever cover story about female bosses, "Women, Sex & Power" in 1996.

"If you can dream it, you can do it," Lazarus says, closing the film on an inspiring note. At least for me, seeing how hard it used to be makes the ongoing struggle all the more worth it.

“From the MPW Co-chairs” is a series where the editors who oversee the Fortune Most Powerful Women brand share their insights about women leaders.

All products and services featured are based solely on editorial selection. FORTUNE may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.

Quotes delayed at least 15 minutes. Market data provided by Interactive Data. ETF and Mutual Fund data provided by Morningstar, Inc. Dow Jones Terms & Conditions: http://www.djindexes.com/mdsidx/html/tandc/indexestandcs.html. S&P Index data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Terms & Conditions. Powered and implemented by Interactive Data Managed Solutions