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Forbes 100 'Most Powerful Women': A credible window on gender equity?

Path to progress?

Forbes released its list of the World's 100 Most Powerful Women this week, with a strong showing by American tech executives. But three successful tech execs does not mean gender equality, say researchers. 

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    Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg speaks during Global Women Leadership Summit in Tokyo in July 2013. Ms. Sandberg recently made the Top 10 in Forbes' list of the World's 100 Most Powerful Women.
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Forbes released its annual list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women this week and seven of the top 10 spots are held by American women. The US also holds 29 of the top 50 spots and half of all 100 spots.

“They are the smartest and toughest female business leaders, entrepreneurs, investors, scientists, philanthropists, and chief executive officers making their mark in the world today,” says Forbes regarding the women on their list. “They’re women who are building billion-dollar brands, calling the shots in the financial markets, and crisscrossing the globe to broker international agreements and provide aid.” 

And the US tech world had a big showing on the list: Rounding out the Top 10 is Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, and Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman. 

Recommended: Why so few women in tech? Seven challenges and potential solutions.

But there was a telling omission: No Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, or Beyonce. Pop culture celebrities were excluded for the first time, making more room for a surge of female political leaders, such as President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, President Park Geun-hye of South Korea, President Bidhya Devi Bhandari of Nepal, and others. 

“[The list] helps inspire women and girls to see women in positions of authority and to be recognized for their successes,” Carol Colatrella, co-director of the Georgia Tech Center for the Study of Women, Science and Technology, says in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. 

But some researchers warn that such a list is not indicative of gender equality, especially in the field of technology where employee diversity is lower than the rest of the workforce

“Forbes cares about political and financial power, and is also US-centric. The top 20 women they list are all genuinely powerful either politically or financially or both,” Virginia Valian, a professor of psychology and gender equity at Hunter College in New York city, tells the Monitor. “I think its somewhat by chance that the firms among the Top 10 – GM, Facebook, HP, and YouTube – have high-up women. I don’t think it reflects women’s role in tech, anymore than the presence of Janet Yellen [Chair of the US Federal Reserve system] and Christine Lagarde [Managing director of the IMF] reflects women’s role in finance.” 

Still, Ms. Sandberg, Ms. Wojcicki, and Ms. Whitman are impressive leaders in their own right.

Since becoming Facebook’s COO in 2008, Sandberg has helped boost revenue at the company 66-fold, published the bestselling book “Lean In,” and donated millions to her nonprofit by the same name that supports women in the workplace. After being hired as the 16th employee at Google, Wojcicki urged her superiors to buy YouTube in 2006. The wife and mother of four then became CEO of the world’s largest video platform in 2014, which is now valued at $70 billion with 1 billion unique visitors a month. And before leading Hewlett-Packard for five years Whitman is responsible for eBay’s success, raising its revenues from $5.7 million to $8 billion in approximately 10 years.  

Acknowledging the power of female leaders, and their efforts to promote gender equity, can be important for setting an example for younger women, vice president and executive director of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research Barbara Gault tells the Monitor in a phone interview. 

“But sometimes when we have prominent women at the heads of companies it can also make us feel like we’ve made more progress than we have with representation at the highest levels of power and leadership,” says Dr. Gault. “It can turn our attention away from the fact that women are still only about 20 percent of our Congress and 25 percent of people in tech.... These women represent rare exceptions.”

Women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are underrepresented, especially at the executive level. In other words, Sandberg, Wojcicki, and Whitman are the exception to the rule.

“In STEM we call it the leaky pipeline,” adds Gault. “Some women are getting Bachelor degrees, less are getting MAs, and then even less are getting PhDs. The representation gets smaller and smaller the further up the ladder you go.” 

But just as Forbes’ list doesn’t represent the overall inequality in STEM fields, it also doesn’t paint the total picture of female leaders' global influence. In fact, there is something unequal about measuring gender equality exclusively by these standards. 

The annual list ranks female leaders based on four criteria: money (either net worth or company revenues), media presence, spheres of influence, and impact, both within each woman’s professional field and outside of it.

“It tells part of the story, but not the whole story – some women are still excluded,” says Kevin Miller, senior researcher at the American Association of University Women. “There is an exclusion of women of color [in the Top 10] – seven white American women and three white European women. But this represents the kind of power Forbes looks at: money and traditional political power.” 

All of the Top 10 women listed by Forbes are multimillionaires – at least. 

And it is easy to quantify gender inequality through these metrics, adds Mr. Miller. For example, researchers can count how many women are legislators and how many women of color are legislators, “but it is harder to really quantify what power means outside of those contexts.”

While some may find it impressive that three female, tech executives made the cut for Forbes’ Top 10, a different list of women leading change around the world – without political or financial power – would be more accurate and inspiring, suggest some observers. Such a list would include more philanthropists and activists along with their STEM counterparts.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton ranked second behind German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has held onto the top spot for the past six years in a row and 10 years overall. Mrs. Clinton’s ranking is unsurprising, considering that the former secretary of State appears poised to become the first woman in American history to lead a major political party’s presidential ticket. The Federal Reserve's Yellen, philanthropist Melinda Gates, and General Motors CEO Mary Barra followed in third, fourth, and fifth place respectively.

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