Forbes' 100 Most Innovative Leaders list includes 99 men. Here's how their methodology was flawed

The fine folks at Forbes are currently falling all over themselves trying to clean up the mess they created by publishing their 2019 list of 100 Most Innovative Leaders.

The problem: The list included 99 men and one woman. For those not so good with the math, that means according to Forbes, only 1% of the country's most innovative leaders are female.

Have you ever watched a movie that's so abysmally bad that you wonder how it ever even got made? Where you think, "Hundreds and hundreds of people had to have been directly involved in the production of this film. Did any of them ever think to say, 'Hey, maybe we should just scrap this idea altogether?"

That's how it feels to see a list like this. So how did Forbes come up with these results?


Let's start with the description at the top of the published list, synopsizing who compiled the list and how:

"Business school professors Jeff Dyer, Nathan Furr and Mike Hendron teamed up with consultant Curtis Lefrandt to measure four essential leadership qualities of top founders and CEOs: media reputation for innovation, social connections, track record for value creation and investor expectations for value creation. The researchers then ranked these visionaries in a high-powered selection of 100 innovators at top U.S. companies."

So right off the bat, we have four men in the business world deciding on the criteria for what makes an innovative leader. There's no way those men could have some biases they aren't aware of, right?

Perhaps that's not a fair assumption on its face, but when a list those men compile includes 99 men and one lone woman? Yeah, I'm gonna go with bias, conscious or unconscious.

Then we have the four criteria they used. Hoo boy. Here's where it becomes painfully obvious to anyone with an inkling of gender equality dynamics and an ability to do a Google search why only one woman ended up on their list.

RELATED: Women make better leaders despite lack of representation, study finds

Let's take a look at the criteria, which you can read about more here, one by one:

1) Media reputation for innovation

Yes, let's uses media reputation as criteria when women are famously underrepresented in the media.

As the Harvard Business Review reports, "Around the world, women are far less likely than men to be seen in the media. As subjects of stories, women only appear in a quarter of television, radio, and print news. In a 2015 report, women made up a mere 19% of experts featured in news stories and 37% of reporters telling stories globally."

We already know that women are underrepresented in top business leadership positions. Combine that fact with women being underrepresented in the media, and this one criteria alone already puts women at a disadvantage.

Next...

2) Social connections/Social capital

Umm, has no one at Forbes ever heard of the "good old boys" network? Are they unaware of the tendency for the historical wealth and power held by men to perpetuate because of men's "social connections" and "social capital" with one another?

How many business meetings are conducted at "gentlemen's clubs"? Cigars after dinner? Golf, anyone?

Of course Forbes know about this. They've even published articles about it.

Let's tack on the fact that the second most powerful leader in our nation won't meet with a woman without a chaperone, but has no problem meeting with a man alone.

Yeah. Those social "connections" and "capital" are sometimes generations deep and pretty obviously limited for women in multiple ways.

3) Track record of market value creation at the company they lead

This is a bit stickier of a criteria to examine, mainly because it seems like a pretty straight-forward data point. But when we break down what it takes for a company to create market value, it starts with funding to get the company off the ground to begin with.

And guess what—women receive far, far less venture capital than men do.

Wharton School of Management professor Ethan Mollick says that 38% to 40% of all U.S. startups have female cofounders, and 40% of companies are funded by venture capitalists. But those numbers don't overlap. Only 2% to 4% of VC funded companies have female cofounders.

"There are a bunch of reasons," says Mollick, "but one key reason seems to be — and this is a problem that we see in discrimination everywhere — something we call 'homophily.' It's the principle that 'birds of a feather flock together.' People like people like themselves. VCs tend to be mostly male; they have friend networks that are mostly male. As a result, you have a very strong network of men who talk to each other, and it's very hard for a woman to get access to these people."

"It doesn't matter how proactive and feminist you are as a guy," he continues. "If the network you are part of is mostly men, you're just not going to see as many women's projects, you're not going to hear in your network about as many successful women. You're not going to be able to do due diligence as easily. This has been a problem in a lot of fields."

So again, women are at a disadvantage on this criteria from the starting line—and it has nothing to do with how innovative they are.

RELATED: 11 facts about women-run businesses that prove the future really is female.

4) Investor expectations of future growth and innovation at their firm

You can probably guess by now what kinds of expectations investors (who we already know are primarily male) have of the future of women's businesses. But let's look at some data anyway.

Columbia University doctoral fellow Dana Kanze conducted a study on pitch competitions, where aspiring entrepreneurs attempt to convince investors to support their business ideas. Interestingly, her team found that investors ask men and women different kinds of questions—and those differences can affect how they view their likelihood of success, and therefore, their "expectations of future growth."

As Inc.com reports:

"Kanze and her team, which includes Laura Huang of Harvard Business School and Mark Conley and E. Tory Higgins of Columbia, dissected the video of 189 company presentations at TechCrunch Disrupt from 2010 to 2016. They found that 67 percent of the questions posed to male entrepreneurs were so-called promotion questions, on subjects such as the total addressable market. By contrast, some 66 percent of the questions asked of female entrepreneurs were prevention-focused: How to defend market share or protect intellectual property, for instance.

The entrepreneurs, not surprisingly, reacted in kind. Ask a guy how big his market is, and, not surprisingly, he'll tell you. Ask a woman how she'll defend her market share, and she'll answer. But the net result is that the women end up looking like they're playing defense, while the men end up looking like the ones with the big visions who are going to change the world. 'You're going to walk away from that conversation thinking the women just care about not losing money,' Kanze says. Her research found that for every additional prevention question an entrepreneur is asked, he or she raised $3.8 million less in aggregate funding."

The difference in questioning is subtle and unconscious. "No one is sitting there saying, 'Hey, you asked him different questions,' Kanze says. "This is the cycle of bias we are trying to break."

And it is this "cycle of bias" that is the entire problem with the methodology used to create the Forbes list. How all of this slipped past the folks responsible for it is baffling, but also a clear example of the problem—men in the business world are so deep in the pool they can't see the obstacles that keep others out of it.

What I can't figure out is how the final list was ever allowed to go to publication. I mean, this is 2019. Everyone is aware of bias at this point. As soon as the numbers were crunched, the data was aggregated, and the results came back with 99 men and one woman, a red flag should have waved in front of the face of everyone involved.

Moira Forbes, a fourth generation Forbes family member—and the first female to be part of the company (ahem)—expressed that she was "disheartened" to read the list, acknowledged that criticisms were warranted, and said she shared many of the same sentiments as those who have complained.

Forbes editor-in-chief Randall Lane wrote a "reflection" on the lack of women on the list, acknowledging that there were flaws in the methodology but falling short of recognizing the full extent of what those were.

"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."

Here's the thing, though—each data point only "made logical sense" if you are looking through the lens of a male who is oblivious of how those data points filter out women. No one is looking to "generate a predetermined result." What we want is a methodology that actually measures innovation in a meaningful way and not with criteria that simply reinforce the workings and dynamics of the male-dominated business world.

TLDR: You should have known better, guys—if not from the start, from the moment the results came back so completely male-heavy. And that fact that you either didn't notice the gender discrepancy—or did, but didn't bother to reexamine the methodology before taking the list to publication—is the crux of the entire problem in the first place.

Images courtesy of Letters of Love
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When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

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