Why It's Time to Ditch "Influential Women" Awards

I find myself attending a lot of dinners to honor Wendy Lea, CEO of Get Satisfaction, as one of Silicon Valley’s Most Influential Women in Business. These dinners take place in various Bay Area cities, are hosted by different organizations, and take nuanced variations of the theme in their titles, but the gist is always the same.

While these events are invariably lovely, there’s something decisively “separate but equal” about them. I’m sick of hearing Wendy overwhelmingly praised in the female category, while all too often left out of the overall narrative.

In the year that I’ve worked for Get Satisfaction, I’ve gone to two of these award events honoring Wendy for her contributions — San Francisco Business Times’ Most Influential Women in Business dinner and Watermark Women Who Have Made Their Mark event. She was also named one of Silicon Valley’s Top 100 Women of Influence in 2010.

Most people in the Silicon Valley business community are familiar with Wendy — her graceful way of asserting influence, her curious, problem-solving mind, and the captivating way she holds an audience of three or three hundred to persuade them to come around to her point of view. She routinely has her employees over for dinner in her home, and she actively mentors a number of other young entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. 

Wendy has been a fixture in the Silicon Valley software scene for quite a while. She co-founded The Sales Consultancy in 1992, which was acquired by OnTarget and ultimately Siebel Systems in 1999. She then went on to serve as Siebel’s VP of eBusiness Consulting. She’s been an angel investor in a number of successful Silicon Valley startups including Ustream and Get Satisfaction before stepping into the role of CEO.

Wendy is deeply embedded and influential in the Silicon Valley tech community. It makes sense that she continues to be recognized as a top/most/best woman in the Bay Area.

The issue is not with individual awards that acknowledge women like Wendy. Rather it is with an evaluation system that doesn’t allow women to transcend the ever present, “female” qualifier, in order to simply sit amongst best. Period.

Some people reading this article are likely to be thinking — they don’t offer Most Influential Men awards, so my point is misguided at best. But a quick search makes it clear that these awards do exist for men — they’re just more subtly titled.

When I Googled, “Most Influential Entrepreneur,” The Center for Innovative Technology’s (CIT) Top 50 list came up first. It honors a whopping eight women out of 50 honorees. According to CIT, women account for just 16% of the most influential entrepreneurs.

 Forbes’ 10 Greatest Living Business Leaders list includes two women — Xerox’s Anne Mulcahy and Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi. Twenty percent is a bit better than 16, but considering the significantly smaller sample size, it’s equally female deficient.

If there are enough women to justify multiple awards recognizing hundreds at a time as influential female leaders, why aren’t there enough to fill out the “just plain best” lists in adequate proportions?

We’ve successfully pushed the bar to include 20% females on these lists — it would be frowned upon to include fewer than that — but it’s not budging further. Acknowledge more than 20 percent on any of these lists, and you suddenly find yourself in women-only territory. Can you imagine a list of influential business people that had more than 50 percent women on it? It sounds absurdly implausible, doesn’t it?

Some would argue that the reason women are stuck hovering at the 20% glass ceiling is not institutionalized sexism, but rather because there just aren’t very many women running our organizations and institutions. They would be right. Just 21 of Fortune 500 companies are run by women (that’s 4% for you data lovers out there). We are slightly better represented in Congress, clocking in at around 15 percent.

But when we know that women are outperforming men in college and graduating in greater numbers, you have to wonder how the number of ambitious, capable women drops off so dramatically once they graduate.

All of this might be dismissible; it’s just the way things are — evolution, baby making and what not — except for the fact that data prove otherwise. Companies with at least 1 woman on the board of directors significantly outperform companies with none— by 26% for companies with more than $10 billion, and by 17% for companies with less.

Companies, like most things, are simply more successful when diverse perspectives and experiences are represented. Perhaps the style which has traditionally been recognized and rewarded in business — aggressive, direct, “masculine” — is more effective when it’s complimented with traditionally “feminine” styles and sensibilities.

The data suggest that companies owe it to their shareholders to have women on their boards. I would venture a hypothesis that, if the number of women in Congress was more equal, compromise might not be such a lofty, laughable concept.

So, you might be wondering, what can we do about it? For starters, I want women to stop being given their own separate but equal category of recognition. Instead, I’d like to see them side by side with equal representation to their male counterparts when we’re discussing the top/best/most. By recognizing women in the same category as men, we make space for women to lead alongside them.