Forbes recently released “America’s Most Innovative Leaders” list. It featured 99 men and 1 woman.

If you scroll way down to #75, you’ll find the sole woman on the list – Barbara Rentler, CEO of Ross Stores. There is no photo of Ms. Rentler, just a blank silhouette of a man. A not so subtle reminder that even the women that make it to the top live in the shadows of their male counterparts.

What was the public reaction?

Not surprisingly, the reaction to this report was visceral and intense. Here are some notable comments:

Anand Giridharadas: “There are twice as many men named Stanley as there are women of any name on the list. And there are only two Stanleys.”

Valerie Jarrett: “If your methodology produced only 1 woman out of the 100 most innovative leaders, obviously you should have challenged it rather than publishing it.”

Billie Jean King: “This is how women and their contributions are erased from history.”

Sunny Bonnell: “This is just sending a sort of a sinister message to anyone that has those audacious dreams of becoming something.”

Moira Forbes: “As someone who has dedicated her career to breaking down systemic barriers for women at all levels, I too was disheartened when I read our list of America’s Most Innovative Leaders.”

Journalist Diana Kapp published an open letter signed by 57 Top Innovative Female CEOs calling out Forbes to overhaul the criteria that determines who makes the cut.

When a publication like Forbes puts forth a report that ignores the contributions of half the population and reinforces gender stereotypes, it reflects poor judgment by its leadership. It’s hard enough for a woman to rise to the top. But when she cannot visualize her future, it affects her confidence in seeking out those opportunities. With fewer women in top roles, there’s less mentorship and social capital to leverage, continuing the cycle of poor representation.

How did this happen?

First, the list was compiled by two male business school professors and a male consultant. The absence of diversity on the team amplified unconscious bias that perpetuates ignorant beliefs.

Second, only CEOs of public companies with greater than $10 billion in market value were included in the study. But starting with the largest publicly traded companies where only 5% of CEO’s are female meant that women never had much of a chance to begin with. The lack of correlation between the ranking pool and the overall talent pool for innovation yielded results that reflected the selection bias.

Third, this methodology evaluated CEO’s based on four factors:

  • Media reputation for innovation
  • Social connections and social capital
  • Track record for value creation
  • Investor expectations for value creation

To be on this list, CEO’s must have a powerful reputation, a large influential network, and investors that are betting on them. In other words, Forbes treated the selection of innovative leaders like a popularity contest within the good old boys’ club.

Finally, having fewer women on a list of billionaires where wealth is the metric is distinctly different from having just one woman on a list of innovative leaders where innovation is the metric. Marketing this report as a list of innovative leaders promotes a dangerous narrative that women are not capable of innovating at scale, or worse, that women are not contributing to innovation at all. Ultimately, this report fails to achieve its original purpose – to inspire innovation.

 What can we all learn from this?

In an age where data drives everything, emotional intelligence and common-sense perspective become even more important. When we exclude half the population, we miss out on their economic contribution and societal impact.

A McKinsey Global Institute report finds that $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality. S&P Global CEO Doug Peterson projects that the US economy could get $1.6 trillion boost from women and stresses the importance of female economic participation.

For women to fully participate, the existing norms must be challenged. Blindly adopting traditional frameworks as objective criteria in a rapidly changing landscape is not a recipe for relevance.

Inclusion does not equate to lower standards. Inclusion is about challenging the unconscious bias that holds us back from achieving our highest dreams.

 What can you do to drive change?

Here are some questions you can ask within your organization:

Does the team bring diverse perspectives?

Whether it’s a product or service, the team responsible for its creation or delivery must reflect the diversity of your market. Early versions of the Google photo app applied automatic labels to pictures in digital photo albums and inadvertently identified African-Americans as gorillas. From health kits that don’t fully account for women’s health, or voice technologies that fail to recognize accents, the biases built into products can be primarily attributed to the absence of diversity. Better products begin with diverse teams.

Is the process or methodology free of built-in bias?

From hiring preferences to promotion readiness, bias can be a significant barrier to success. For example, success qualifiers have traditionally been defined based on masculine characteristics and traits. When a man is aggressive and acerbic, he is viewed as passionate about results. When a woman does the same, she has sharp elbows and is emotionally volatile. And if she lacks these traits, then she is weak and not cut out for the job. Often times, the qualitative nature of bias makes it difficult to detect. Dig deeper and challenge the norm, because unconscious bias is hard to eliminate unless you bring awareness to it.

Will the results pass the common-sense sniff test?

Regardless of the depth of logic, or the rigor of analysis, let’s not obfuscate good intentions and poor judgment. If it doesn’t pass the sniff test, then perhaps it’s a good reason to revisit the criteria. Some glaring examples include expert panel discussions on diversity with a homogenous group of panelists; or executive leadership with all white males as the company touts its commitment to diversity. If Forbes had applied the common-sense sniff test, they might have had the opportunity to course correct. The assumption that rigorous analysis conducted by an intelligent team can only yield brilliant results is a faulty premise. We can all do better with a bit more common-sense and a lot more empathy.

As leaders, it is our privilege and responsibility to inspire greatness in others. Somewhere out there is a young girl dreaming of changing the world. Let’s give her every reason to believe that she can.