Do ‘Most Powerful Women’ Lists Exacerbate the Problem?


Power of Ideas

Do ‘Most Powerful Women’ Lists Exacerbate the Problem?

Richard Ditizio
Richard Ditizio
President and Chief Operating Officer, Milken Institute

The loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg presents an opportunity to reflect on the great impact one life can make on the world. When trailblazers live long lives as she did, we can evaluate what has changed over the decades, contrasting the society she was born into with the one she departed.

Until 1974, a woman could be refused a credit card if her husband didn’t approve or co-sign. Until 1978, a woman could be fired or denied employment because she was pregnant. Until 1992, there was no ladies’ room in the US Senate chambers. The list goes on. And while the overt discrimination RBG and other women encountered in the workplace now seems absurd (and illegal), the reality is all these years later, we still don’t have a level playing field, despite the countless dollars and endless HR policies thrown at the issue.

When I speak on workplace inclusion issues, I often begin with the notion that language matters and that “tolerance” is one of the ugliest words you can use: No one wants to be tolerated. The very idea of tolerance elevates the person doing the tolerating as if from a superior perch he will allow your difference to be present and therefore deserves some sort of cookie.

There are endless examples of how very pejorative language has been so inculcated in our daily lives that we barely flinch. “Female empowerment” oddly bestows upon men the right to grant women that power; “openly gay” is laden with implication, none of it good (we don’t ever note that someone is “openly straight”). Each is an example of the group in power highlighting someone’s difference from the norm, but the good news is they are willing to tolerate you. This notion is illustrated by various “Most Powerful” lists, and since I’ve spent the majority of my career as a banker, I’ll start there.

While American Banker magazine has no report devoted to the “Most Powerful Men” in banking, it recently launched its 18th annual rankings on the most powerful women, and, as a bonus, its associated list of “Women to Watch.”

The whole notion of “honoring” women for rising to prominent positions does the exact opposite by pointing out just how aberrant this success is—so outside the norm that these ladies need their own issue. And because this success seems never to be normalized—or expected—this becomes an annual event. By highlighting female success as rare and newsworthy, this focus on what women are not—that is, the straight white men we have long expected to occupy powerful positions—contributes to a narrative of “otherness,” which, nearly 50 years after the women’s movement of the 1970s, we are still trying to undo.

The trap has been set. If potential honorees complain that a better list might just note the most powerful individuals in a given industry and remove themselves from an oddly competitive gender-specific set-up, they risk not being seen as worthy enough to merit inclusion, sacrificing the attendant accolade to their employer.

I want you to picture an alternate universe of magazine covers where instead of “Most Powerful Women” or “Most Influential Black Executives,” we have entire issues devoted to “Most Powerful Graying White Men in Finance” or “Openly Straight White Guys to Watch.” If that sounds ridiculous, it’s hard to argue that these other lists make any sense.

Each time we offer or accept an accolade based on gender, race, or sexual orientation, we are feeding into the troublesome way of thinking that landed us with such inequality in the first place.

Until we stop focusing on attributes like gender and placing women in ranked competition, we will not truly level the playing field. And each time we offer or accept an accolade based on gender, race, sexual orientation, or any other attribute it would be illegal to exclude during the hiring process, we are feeding into the troublesome way of thinking that landed us with such inequality in the first place.

With men still comprising 93 percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs and women representing just over 50 percent of the workforce, we need to envision a different paradigm with new tools to break old norms.

First, we need to stop tasking women with devising solutions to a problem they did not create. Corporations sponsoring well-meaning but often powerless women’s networks and other affinity groups bring those living with the issues together to gaze at the problem, with no tools to enact real change. Instead, the top 10 leaders of every organization—presumably vested in the long-term success of the company’s talent—should be required to sponsor one or two women or other diverse, high-potential employees. Mentors can sometimes morph into guidance counselors—sponsors should be held accountable for forging growth opportunities and tracking career progression by opening doors for their junior charges.

Second, we need to enforce accountability metrics and not be afraid of quotas and other representation targets not just for women but for all diverse candidates. Goldman Sachs recently announced it would not take a company public if all the directors are straight, white men. Institutional investors should start viewing their equity positions for what they are—ownership stakes—and, as owners, demand more representation in the employee bases and boards of the companies they own. That’s not just a nice idea: Evidence consistently shows more diverse companies yield greater financial performance.

Third, we need government policy to support these initiatives, just as California has done by mandating board representation from both female and other diverse directors. Government leaders should demand inclusion as a requirement for their participation at external events, as National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins did when he announced he would not speak on any panel that did not also have at least one woman.

There’s no monopoly on good ideas to address this, and while these types of initiatives may not provide the clickbait that rankings offer to their publishers, they can spark real change and drive greater equity for marginalized groups in ways that no list ever will.

Published October 14, 2020