99 Men. 1 Woman. What Went Wrong?

Image:    Artwork by Aaditi Lele

Image: Artwork by Aaditi Lele

Picture this: You’re a teenage girl. An aspiring CEO, an inventor, an innovator. You’re full of ideas, of passion, of potential. Then, a notification pops up on your phone. “Forbes: America’s Most Innovative Leaders”! You click, always on the hunt for a new role model, an aspiration. Scrolling, you sift through a slew of men. Scrolling. Scrolling. More scrolling. Finally, #75, a woman, like you. There are 100 people on this list and only one like you? Is it even possible for you to get on that list someday? Discouraged and dismayed, you stop jotting down those ideas, stop tinkering with those experiments, stop pursuing that dream. 

Is this the content we want to feed young girls? 99 men & 1 woman. It’s obvious we face a palpable inadequacy of gender balance; so, who’s to blame and whose responsibility is it to ensure that our highest recognitions, rankings, and C-suites are gender-balanced? For some, the obligation falls squarely on Forbes, and media altogether, to recognize women and their accomplishments as much as they do men. For others, the responsibility falls on society, to talk about female innovators enough that they are recognized by blind algorithms. When media blames society for the lack of female innovators and society blames media for their skewed portrayal, we get nowhere. In reality, neither the blame nor the responsibility can be placed entirely on us or them. For me, the accountability rests on us both to ensure that young women are not discouraged and that the next ranking and the one after have a different demographic. 

First off, the undertaking of society as a whole is dual-pronged: we must not only build infrastructure to propel young women to seek such positions but in turn recognize them when they innovate and lead. In his “apology” following the debacle, the editor of Forbes, Randall Lane wasn’t entirely wrong to explain that women are “poorly represented at the top of the largest corporations,” but we need to go farther than just stating this, we need to understand it. The number of women in new-age technology, STEM, and other male-dominated fields isn’t decreasing, in fact, it’s increasing; so why do we have such a hard time recognizing them? Part of the reason has to do with patents. According to a report on “Innovation & Intellectual Property” from the Institute of Women’s Policy Research, though “Women make up a growing share of U.S. entrepreneurs,” they “are far less likely than men...to hold patents.” As “Previous research has found that intellectual property rights, including patents, can play an important role in business success,” our adversity is not in the fact that women are absent from the field but rather that they are held back from appropriate recognition. By increasing resources and investment in female entrepreneurs, we can alleviate issues that curtail female achievement like this one. Further, not only do we need to help women reach these heights, but recognize them better when they do. Maybe, if we are able to talk about female innovators and leaders as often as we talk about Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, their names too can be recognized by such “objective” algorithms.

Now, as society continues to improve support and recognition of female innovators and leaders, we share with media the responsibility to uphold and ameliorate the public perception of female entrepreneurs. When media, including Forbes, consider publishing a ranking like this, they must hold themselves accountable and anticipate the lasting effects publishing content can have on public perception. Anne Wojcicki, CEO, and co-founder of genetic testing company 23andMe puts it best telling All Things Considered that “‘there are real ripple effects when this kind of press dominates... It's how in general women are perceived.’" In order to tread carefully around publishing such content, media groups must to pay heed to their misgivings and critique their own methodology. As Valerie Jarret, senior adviser to President Obama, commented, “If your methodology produced only one woman out of the 100 most innovative leaders, obviously you should have challenged it rather than publishing it.” As for Forbes, many steps needed to be taken to ensure that rankings didn’t perpetuate skewed perceptions. But the first was simple: include a woman in the room. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case and Forbes missed an opportunity, instead prolonging the notion that women are not innovators or leaders. 

So, to be blunt, the only clear lesson from Forbes’ recent ranking is that we need to do better. As a society, we can better analyze the institutionalized obstacles that have kept an equal amount of women from the C-suite, publicly recognize the accomplishments of female innovators, and hold media accountable for perpetuating demeaning narratives. As for Forbes and the media altogether, they must work towards including women in the conversation, improving methodology, and always holding themselves accountable to their larger potential for cultural impact. Only with a sense of shared responsibility and obligation can we ensure such progress when striving for gender balance. 

Aaditi LeleComment