Rankings: The Evolution of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women and How Pattie Sellers Changed My Life

Pattie Sellers changed my life. In 1998, I was a sophomore in a Texas high school, starting to think about college. An ambitious and bright kid, I longed for female role models and other than Ann Richards, wasn’t finding many of them in Lone Star State. 

In 1998, Fortune launched what would become their first annual Most Powerful Women list, naming the 50 women their team of editors had deemed the “most powerful women in business.” 

Commenting upon that first list they penned: 

So where do you find the majority of our 50? Look to the industries that put a premium on creativity: advertising, media and entertainment, and publishing. There you’ll find the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Paramount’s Sherry Lansing, and MTV’s Judy McGrath… A huge hole: no top women at blue-chip firms like IBM, Dell, Compaq, or Intel.

The world has changed since 1998 and the list has changed accordingly. 2011 saw a remarkable increase in women in leadership roles in technology with Meg Whitman (H-P) and Virginia Rometty (IBM) both helming their companies in CEO roles. 

Of course, things haven’t been completely balmy for women in tech if the spectacular / wince-inducing departure of Carol Bartz from Yahoo! is any indicator. 

Since the first list in 1998, Fortune’s MPW list has become a mini empire, with a lot of thanks due Pattie Sellers, who the Washington Post recently profiled. Sellers is the brains behind the list and the annual Most Powerful Women Summit and has consequently been a powerful force shaping the agenda of women in leadership. She’s also feisty, as her self-described “politically incorrect” 1996 “Women, Sex, and Power" article demonstrated. 

The Post gives a bit of the origin story of the list, quoting Sellers as telling editors as the time: 

We have to rank them… It’s the only way that guys will read this thing, because guys are into stats and status and size and rank.

It may seem a bit outdated to repeat today in 2012, but Sellers was on to something. Women’s rankings — as we’ll hopefully demonstrate on this blog — are now almost ubiquitous, but that wasn’t the case in 1998. Not only did Sellers and the crew at Fortune begin to really look at what it means to be a woman in management, but also to try to quantify power

Criteria that the team did and still does look at are factors like — is she a rockstar (how quickly did she climb the ranks), how many career moves has she had (if she a life-er? Did she work her way up the ranks or get spotted out of a crowd), the harder figures like earning capacity, board seats, titles, revenue under control and her wider impact on the larger economy. 

Sure, it’s subjective… but as a high school student in 1998 flipping through an issue of Fortune while sitting in my dentist’s waiting room, well, it was life-altering. And while, as the 1998 issue mentions, 70% of the women on the top 50 list went to co-ed schools, I like to think that that issue influenced my own decision to attend an all women’s college, in the tradition of Hillary Clinton, who — if we’re talking rankings — was just named the Most Admired Woman in the annual USA Today/ Gallup Poll

More women managers, making more money, though still not first preferred gender of dads

On the whole, as a Wellesley lass, this makes my heart sing. Though slightly troubling that gender preferences when starting a family in the US haven’t changed in over 50 years… Ruh roh. 

Via Fast Company