Startup Analysis

‘Sausage fest’: Forbes’ top innovators list just reinforces barriers to women in business

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien /

Pep Talk Her

Pep Talk Her founder Meggie Palmer.

This weekend, Forbes released its list of America’s 100 most innovative leaders. It will be of no surprise that Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk tied for first place, or that Mark Zuckerburg, Marc Benioff and Reed Hastings make up numbers three, four and five.

What is excruciating, however, is you have to scroll down the list, to number 75, before you reach a woman’s name. That woman is Barbara Rentler, chief executive of Ross Stores, and she is the one and only woman who made the top 100.

To add insult to injury, Rentler’s listing didn’t even have an image of her. Rather, it shows a generic silhouette. Of a man.

Predictably, the list caused a furore on Twitter, from people who were outraged, bewildered and downright exhausted. Largely, critics called Forbes’ methodology into question. If the criteria for listing meant only men made the cut, then, surely, the methodology was wrong.

In a LinkedIn post, Aussie journalist and founder of @PepTalkHer Meggie Palmer, who is now based in the US, called out the authors of the list, asking directly “why they chose a methodology which amplifies the diversity issue in corporate America”.

And, credit where credit’s due, Michael Hendron, associate teaching professor of entrepreneurship at Brigham Young University and co-author of the list, responded.

“This wasn’t a subjective contest,” Hendron stressed.

“We let the numbers decide, and they reveal an underlying issue among this population that we can’t change.”

Hendron explained that the team considered expanding the parameters of the methodology, but ultimately decided not to.

“Maintaining integrity of the method, left us with this result,” he said.

He also suggested there were some women who would have been eligible for the list, but — because of poor timing — were not.

Former chief of PepsiCo Indra Nooyi, for example, would have been eligible had she not retired this year. The same thing was true for two other one-time eligible innovators, while two more would have been considered had they been in their positions for longer.

“In all cases it was unfortunate they didn’t make the list, but as we looked at individual cases we didn’t find any bias in our approach,” Hendron explained.

“There was no feasible solution to increase diversity given this sample.”

For many, this was unsatisfactory. The list, curated by business school professors Jeff Dyer and Nathan Furr, along with Hendron, measures “four essential leadership qualities”, laid out in a whole article on the methodology used.

These qualities are: media reputation for innovation, social connections, track record for value creation, and investor expectations for value creation

Whether these four points are in fact indicators of innovation or not is perhaps an altogether different discussion. The authors say it’s intended to consider “the wisdom of the crowd”.

But, while the explanation of the methodology is lengthy, and acknowledges imperfection, it does not make any note of the glaring exclusion of women.

Equally, the list’s statement page has a ‘leader spotlight’ section, and a whole separate article on what we can learn from leaders’ contrasting styles. There’s also a fun ‘quick quotes’ carousel.

But, no room for a look into why only one woman made the list. No analysis of the environment that allows for total male business domination, and no nod to the apparent internal discussions or concerns held by Hendron and the team.

So, the story that has emerged is that the authors of the report noticed there was a severe imbalance, but ultimately, decided to do nothing to address it. They even chose not to acknowledge it until it was starkly and unforgivingly pointed out on social media. Did they think we wouldn’t notice?

Forbes magazine editor Randall Lane has since realised the blunder. In a piece published on Sunday, he too stresses the listing was intended to be a data-driven exercise, designed to rank innovators on more than revenue and net worth.

He too suggested the pool of people, not the methodology, was 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,” he said.

However, Lane admitted that there was room for learning from the experience.

“We should have … used this moment to delve into the larger problem of women ascending to CEO. We own that.”

Lane also said the methodology was flawed.

While each individual data point “made logical sense”, he said. “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 pre-determined result, but in this case, the forest got lost in the trees,” he added.

What we are left with is a list of 99 ‘most innovative’ men, curated by men who realised their mistake too late. We have to ask, was it all worth it?

What was this list trying to achieve? And is the damage done, both to women in business and to Forbes’ reputation, really worth it?

In her response to Hendron’s LinkedIn comments, Palmer notes there was a missed opportunity here for Forbes to acknowledge and analyse the disparity, “rather than reinforcing a systemic issue everyone already knew about”.

Sure, Forbes may not be able to change the makeup of the entrepreneurial community, she says.

“However, I think it’s fair to expect from experts and a publication like Forbes a commitment to understanding the impact or articles and studies like this.

“I’m not convinced this has had a healthy impact on the messaging men and women receive about the role of everyday innovation.”

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Stephanie Palmer-Derrien

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien is the editor at StartupSmart. You can contact her at [email protected].

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