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Technology tops Forbes list of 100 most powerful women

The need for a list shows its own problems

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The latest list from Forbes of the 100 most powerful women on the planet suggests that the technology industry is leading the way in promoting sexual equality, contributing 15 per cent of the spots overall and a quarter of the top 20 positions.

The technology industry contributed more names to the list (see below) than any other business sector, and includes the heads of some of the biggest firms in the hardware, software, and services sectors. Google was the only company to have two women on the list.

Understandably it's the politicians who wield the most power, with the first and second spots going to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but the technology industry contributed more names to the list (see below) than any other business sector.

The top tech position at number four goes to Melinda Gates, Co-chair of the charitable foundation that bears her and Bill's name. Ms. Gates was a career Microserf before she married Bill, although she might want to forget her involvement with Microsoft Bob – a product reviled to this day by some in the industry.

The corporate world is well represented overall, with Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg (10), Virginia Rometty, CEO of IBM (15), Xerox's boss Ursula Burns (17), and Meg Whitman, failed political candidate and HP's latest CEO (18). Yahoo's new leader Marissa Meyer (21) just missed the top 20, while Oracle co-president Safra Catz got a very poor position (48), possibly reflecting Larry's tight grip on his outfit.

Some of Forbes' choices are a tad odd, however. Susan Wojcicki, an SVP at Google, is certainly important, but placing her one place ahead of the Queen seems to be overegging it – to misquote the mustachioed manic Stalin, how many divisions does Google have? Prince Harry, no doubt keen to get back in his granny's good graces, might be tempted to do a fly-past and remind the Chocolate Factory of that.

Such lists can't be taken too seriously, as the high placing of Lady Gaga (14) shows, but the spread of candidates shows that the technology industry can take a little pride in its more egalitarian culture, while hopefully acknowledging (as Randal Munroe points out) that there's still a mountain to climb in more ways than one.

Women are still less likely than men to apply for and enjoy IT work, and when they do they often have a rougher time of it. Breaking the glass ceiling is a popular metaphor for the rise of women in business, but they must also beware the glass cliff – often companies are more willing to take a flier on a women boss when all else fails.

Yes, the technology industry is better than most, but it's worth questioning why lists like this even exist, beyond filling page space. If men and women were truly considered equal then the very notion of a separate list might have less interest. ®

Powerful women of technology

4. Melinda Gates, co-chair, Bill &Melinda Gates Foundation

10. Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook

15. Virginia Rometty, CEO, IBM

17. Ursula Burns, CEO, Xerox

18. Meg Whitman, CEO, HP

21. Marissa Meyer, CEO, Yahoo

25. Susan Wojcicki, SVP Google

48. Safra Catz, president and CFO, Oracle

56. Cher Wang, co-founder, HTC

58. Padmasree Warrior, CTO, Cisco

70. Sue Gardner, executive director, the WikiMedia Foundation

74. Chua Sock Koong, Group CEO, SingTel

84. Mary Meeker, Partner, KPCB

89. Weili Dai, co-founder, Marvell Technology Group

91. Sun Yafang, chair, Huawei

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