By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, Tribune Newspapers
September 11, 2012
Forbes' recent annual list of the 100 Most Powerful Women reminds us how far women have come — and how far society has yet to go.
The list's existence in itself, worthy as it may be, is testament to continued inequity. There is no list of 100 Most Powerful Men, because Forbes' annual ranking of the world's Most Powerful People is overwhelmingly a boy's club; of the 70 names on last year's powerful people list, only six were women: German Chancellor Angela Merkel; Sonia Gandhi, president of the Indian National Congress; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff; International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde and New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson. All six are among the top 10 on the powerful women list.
And although the 100 women are dazzlingly accomplished, the criteria by which their power is measured mostly reflects the traditionally male-centric value system by which the world judges success: in a word, money. Government leaders and corporate CEOs dominate, their power measured by company revenue or a nation's gross domestic product. Powerful celebrities are judged based on salary, media attention and social media followers; billionaires by net worth; humanitarians by dollars spent.
"It's women who basically have made it in a man's world," said Yasmeen Hassan, global director of Equality Now, a women's rights group. "In the world in which we live, power is very much defined by what (Forbes is) defining it as: it's money, access and connections. But is that what power should be? Is that what we want the world to look like?"
Nilay Yapici, for one, does not. Yapici, a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of neurogenetics and behavior at The Rockefeller University in New York, said she was disappointed that the list included no scientists, no acknowledgment of important research being conducted today that could shape the future.
Certainly, research needs funders (Melinda Gates, co-chair with husband Bill of the Gates Foundation, is ranked No. 4) but, asked Yapici, who studies the genetics of eating disorders, "Who is really powerful: the person who gives the money, or the person who has the idea and makes the discovery?"
The power of ideas did not get much attention on the Forbes list, said Alison Bernstein, director of the Institute for Women's Leadership at Rutgers University as well as a women's studies scholar and former vice president at the Ford Foundation.
Title was a far larger factor than cultural or intellectual innovation or the courage to lead social movements (Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi, No. 19, is an important exception), said Bernstein, and she was surprised not to find any women's rights leaders.
Bernstein said she might have included Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian women's peace activist who won the most recent Nobel Peace Prize along with two other women, or former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, now the head of the United Nations' new gender equality program, UN Women.
Leading by consensus
Measuring power by the traditional metrics of title, money or fame can ignore people who exercise power as collaboration rather than as a singular responsibility.
"A lot of the women on my list exercise a leadership that understands it's Thelma and Louise — not just Thelma, not just Louise," Bernstein said.
Speaking of Hollywood, 10 of the 100 powerful women on the list are celebrities whose business ventures or philanthropic efforts give them far-reaching influence. Standbys like Oprah Winfrey (No. 11) and Ellen DeGeneres (No. 47) are on there, as well as newcomers Shakira (No. 40), Jennifer Lopez (No. 38) and Sofia Vergara (No. 75), among others
There are no celebrities on the list of world's most powerful people. And that, Hassan said, is another way in which female power is viewed through a male lens, for sex appeal matters.
Not that it's inaccurate.
"I know that if we had an event, if we got Jennifer Lopez, our fundraising would go up tremendously," Hassan said. "So I understand the power they have."
The inclusion of supermodel Gisele Bundchen (No. 83) intrigued New York psychotherapist Simone Kornfeld — not because she shouldn't be there, but because it acknowledged the reality that beauty is power.
"She could be a good businesswoman, but her career, her power, comes from this gift of beauty she was born with," said Kornfeld, co-author of "Smitten: The Way of the Brilliant Flirt," due out next spring.
That the Bundchen pick probably provoked the most eye rolls was also interesting, Kornfeld said. "We push women to have beauty all the time, and then we get mad at them when they do," she said.
Erica Ariel Fox, who teaches negotiation at Harvard Law School and is president of Mobius Executive Leadership, said the focus on earnings and title neglects to consider inner qualities that may make people powerful, such as that they're deeply inspiring, or the fact that a company's top dog isn't always the most influential.
Yet interestingly, as more women rise to the top by traditional male standards of success, Fox said she has found a concurrent trend among male leaders to embrace more archetypically feminine values — turning away from hierarchy to build webs of relationships, wanting meaning and purpose to their work as well as bottom line results.
Forbes, being a business magazine, may always judge power according to money, which is one way to do it. But Hassan hopes being powerful eventually is redefined away from cash power toward a moral power, where what's most important is what you value and what you've been able to do for other people — a cause likely helped by the 100 brilliant women at the top of Forbes' food chain.
"They're the ones who will have to lead the paradigm shift," Hassan said.
Meet all 100
Meet the women chosen for 2012 at forbes.com/power-women.
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