The irony wasn’t lost on me Friday evening: As I co-hosted the welcome reception for 100 of the most influential leaders of For(bes) The Culture, the newly official Forbes Under 30 community of inclusion, a Twitterstorm emerged around our just-released list of 100 Most Innovative Leaders and its gender balance. An upsetting shadow over an uplifting night.
The squall was driven by an accomplished crowd, including many women that I know and respect. I could hardly blame them: The core social message—that Forbes’ editors picked 100 innovative leaders, while including only one woman—would anger me too.
That, of course, did not happen. While I enjoy a subjective list as much anyone, the kind where you sit around a room debating and adding and culling, the vast majority of Forbes’ lists are data-driven exercises, where we determine a methodology, crunch the numbers and let the chips fall where they may. In the case of the new Innovative Leaders ranking, we’ve been honing its methodology for years, through our Most Innovative Companies list, in partnership with professors at BYU and INSEAD, who have pioneered the idea of an “innovator’s premium”—publicly traded companies valued at a number beyond what their mere financial performance justifies.
As Forbes has always championed the individual leader rather than the faceless corporation, we worked with the same team of professors to tailor that methodology to CEOs, incorporating the innovator’s premium above and adding measurable tools (quantitative reputation, social capital, publicly traded track record). And we then applied that methodology to the CEOs or founders of the largest public companies—mostly those worth $10 billion or more of those growing quickly, which skews toward healthcare and tech.
This pool ultimately proved the problem: Women, as we all know, are poorly represented at the top of the largest corporations (just 5% of the S&P 500) and fare even worse among growing public tech companies. In other words, for all our carefully calibrated methodology, women never had much of a chance here.
In the past, when a list lays bare larger cultural issues, we’ve created learning moments. For years, many criticized Forbes’ Billionaires list for its lack of women. While that’s a case of shooting the messenger—we just count the money—we’ve also taken active steps to counterbalance, including the creation of a specific list of the Richest Self-Made Women, which over four years has proved to be almost as popular as the overall Billionaires list itself. For the Next Billion Dollar Startup list, we examined possible timelines for more women-led company funding. When we ranked America’s Best-Paid Actresses, we also analyzed why only one woman of color made the cut.
In this case, we should have similarly used this moment to delve into the larger problem of women ascending to CEO. We own that.
Our methodology was flawed, as well—at a minimum when it came to being more expansive with who was eligible to be ranked. While each data point individually made logical sense, as did focusing on data-rich public companies, the entire exercise collapses if the possible ranking pool doesn’t correlate at least somewhat with the overall pool of innovative talent. It would be intellectually dishonest to construct a methodology designed to generate a predetermined result, but in this case the forest got lost in the trees.
Forbes’ brand stems from inclusive, entrepreneurial capitalism—the idea that free markets, open to all, have proved the best-ever system to produce wealth and happiness and solve societal problems. In this year alone, we’ve called for a reimagination of capitalism, produced our first-ever Under 30 event focusing on women and launched an editorial channel focused on diversity and inclusion. After this weekend, add a rethink of America’s Most Innovative Leaders to that task list.