What does it mean to be a Woman of Influence? This is the question underpinning a series of panels and conversations hosted this week at Sotheby’s and organized by Fortune. With its September issue, the influential business publication has released its list of 50 Most Powerful Women (MPW), and next month it holds its annual summit in Laguna Niguel, California. The heavy-hitting roster of participants includes Apple senior vice president Angela Ahrendts, Chelsea Handler, Anita Hill and Sheryl Sandberg among others. The summit’s co-chair and editor of the MPW list is Jennifer Reingold, editor at large of Fortune who will be moderating a panel on Women, Business and Technology at Sotheby’s on Tuesday, 20 September. We caught up with Reingold ahead of the Sotheby’s events to talk about power, progress, Hillary Clinton and more. For a complete Women of Influence schedule, including talks on women in fashion and the arts, please visit sothebys.com/events.
The September issue of Fortune includes your annual 50 Most Powerful Women feature. Tell us about the list and how it’s evolved since its inception.
This is our nineteenth list. We have always focussed on women who are running businesses, not just women in positions of power. We don’t include Angela Merkel, Janet Yellin or Hillary Clinton, although Clinton is on the cover – we take the first woman US presidential nominee seriously. When we started the list, the people prominent enough to make it were in marketing and entertainment. What we’ve seen over time is that women are now leading in all kinds of industries and at major companies – Lockheed Martin, IBM, Oracle, Fidelity. You would not have seen that so broadly ten or fifteen years ago.
If there’s been progress, why do we need still a 50 Most Powerful Women list?
It would be very nice to retire this list. We feel great when we put together the list of these amazing women, but you realize that they are still exotic. Just 4.8 per cent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women and while that’s up from 1.8 per cent about ten years ago, that number is the same as last year. We’re talking about twenty-two to twenty-four women. If we continue at the rate we’re going, we’ll get to parity in a few hundred years. Until we get to a point where there aren’t just these kinds of outrageous numbers, I think this list is relevant.
What is the main objective for the Women of Influence series at Sotheby’s and for the annual summit in October?
Networking has always been a part of business. But the way men network is not always the same as the way women network. These kinds of gatherings allow women to be able to make connections that perhaps they would not have made on their own, and to market themselves across industries or find venture financing for their companies. You have to leverage the power of the group.
How does that valuable information and exchange of ideas trickle down beyond the high-level people who are there?
While the summit is a business conference and not women’s issues conference, the women who attend are all role models in their way, they all mentor other women and for the most part they are so conscious of what their role is that they bring what they learn back to their very big organizations.
So it’s like a female executive has two jobs – running her company and being a role model. How do women feel about that dual expectation?
You can ask that question all day long and you’ll get different answers. Some may resent it, or they will say that’s actually not my job. My job is to be the best CEO for my company. But also women are very honest about the fact that as a woman you do get more scrutiny no matter what, on the up side and on the down side. Many women are happy to talk about it but some women have been successful by pretending it didn’t exist and powering through. There’s no right or wrong response but the scrutiny is greater no matter what – think of the difference in how Hillary Clinton is perceived. The whole smiling thing – it’s a perfect example of why Fortune still publishes this list.