Figure it out, Forbes. And World.

On inclusive leadership and the systems we design to support (or diminish) it.

Photograph by The Lily News

Lastly September Forbes published “America’s Most Innovative Leaders” list, profiling one hundred of “the most creative and successful business minds of today.” Ninety-nine of the top one hundred list were men (and barely a sprinkle men of color). You had to scroll down to # 75, Ross Stores’ CEO Barbara Rentler, to see the one woman mentioned, and she didn’t get so much as a headshot — just a masculine silhouette in gray (which has since been updated to resemble a female). YOU CAN’T MAKE THIS STUFF UP.

As noted by this Washington Post reaction, the Forbes list was supported by an algorithm that ranked CEOs market value (greater than $10 billion) and their companies’ “innovation premium,” or the “difference between their market capitalization (value) and the net present value of cash flows from existing businesses.”

“What’s astounding is that there is no discussion of how much the 99% male list might be a result of choices about what quantitative indicators to use.” Others laced their comments with sarcasm: “It’s so weird,” mocked one Twitter user. “Our algorithm, which is based on years of outdated statistics that favor privilege and patriarchal systems … just seems to keep rewarding white guys.”

In case you missed that: the Forbes list, like many, was supported by an algorithm. An algorithm (like all the rest) designed by, with, for people. Do not blame the inanimate databases or the robots; we’re wiring systems to preserve and promote exclusivity.

Women barely represent 5% of CEOs in the S&P 500 Index. So from the get-go, women didn’t stand a chance at making the Forbes list. Further, in response to public backlash, Forbes acknowledged that the vast majority of its lists are “data-driven exercises, where we determine a methodology, crunch the numbers and let the chips fall where they may.

This practice of surrendering to systems designed to filter and screen in the few is also common [understandably, to a point] in recruiting — yet all too often loaded with bias.

I’ve devoted a large portion of my career to creating diverse and inclusive workspaces. I regularly hear companies fret about the lack of skilled talent “supply” in the local pipeline, and concerns regarding workforce readiness and training consistent with open jobs are valid.

Of equal — arguably greater — concern is the “demand” side of the equation: companies that want to grow diversity yet create and/or outsource applicant screening processes that favor exclusivity. Many hiring systems are designed to screen-in pedigree where, on the job, a degree is significantly less a determinant of success compared to the know-how of skill. Ask any professional what or who they credit most for their success in the workplace and they are much more likely to cite learning gained from real world experience, not degree.

Further, if only a third of the US labor market has a college degree, what’s to happen to the other two thirds, particularly those for whom a college degree was neither affordable nor accessible? By choosing pedigree over skills mastery, a large portion of talented human capital is excluded from mere consideration for the job interview, let alone participation in our talent-hungry, innovation-starving labor market.

To quote a common phrase from my good friend and colleague, Byron Auguste, co-founder of Opportunity@Work: “Talent is universal. Opportunity is not.

Though the struggle was real for my parents to send this first generation kid to college, I have been blessed beyond measure with opportunities to go to school, to travel and gain perspective, to seed and strengthen my social networks, to know a person that knew a person that scored me a job interview, helped pave my career path, and so forth. I was born on third base where others don’t get up to bat. I have a responsibility to stand up and speak out, to pry open closed doors, to create opportunity.

But standing up and speaking out isn’t sufficient. Until more women are seen and leading in spaces traditionally dominated by men, these not-so-accidental slip-ups like Forbes’ will continue and we’re all the emperor’s new clothes.

Forbes: if you want to make a list of innovative thinkers and publish it, please do the world a favor and come out of your man cave to see what real inclusive leadership looks like. Here’s a fantastic start by Sarah Robb O’Hagan on LinkedIn, (my newest hero, who deserves a spot on this list just for writing it).

Please join me in the call for discernment toward inclusion, and not just from institutional structures and systems but from and for ourselves. We are the systems we’re designing. It’s high time we take a long look in the mirror at how we design and choose systems that make our daughters see they’re worthy of a world in desperate need of their and their sisters’ strong-willed, driven, intelligent, compassionate, creative innovations.

We are better than Forbes’ list. Our systems can be too — if we design them to be.

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