The Women who Lead the World

Published 9 years ago

The world’s most powerful woman, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has a lot on her mind these days: Mediterranean migrants, Russian sanctions, homegrown spying scandals, Eurozone stability and the Germanwings crash, to name a few pressing issues. One thing she surely isn’t thinking about — but we are — is that come next year’s U.S. elections, she could lose her title for the first time since 2010 to the one person with a credible and mathematical chance of “leading” the world.

Hillary Clinton has appeared on this FORBES ranking every year since it launched in 2004 as, in order, a senator, secretary of state and influential personality. In 2015, Clinton is No. 2, just a breath and a ballot away from the Most Powerful Woman crown.


This is FORBES’ definitive annual audit of the foremost heads of state, iconic entrepreneurs and CEOS, celebrity role models, billionaire activists, and pioneer philanthropists, all ranked by money, media momentum, spheres of influence and impact.

This year’s top 10: Merkel and Clinton followed by Melinda Gates, Janet Yellen, Mary Barra, Christine Lagarde, Dilma Rousseff, Sheryl Sandberg, Susan Wojcicki and Michelle Obama.

The most powerful women in politics, philanthropy, business and tech are Merkel, Gates, Barra and Sandberg, respectively. Our top ranking billionaire this year is Oprah Winfrey at No. 12, who has a personal net worth of $3 billion. Ana Patricia Botin, the newly installed chair of Banco Santander, is the top woman in finance at No. 18. Beyoncé Knowles leads in the entertainment field at No. 21, while Anna Wintour, Conde Nast artistic director, reigns over the media sector at No. 28.

The concept of power can be nebulous – especially when it comes to gender. As of January 2015, 10 women served as heads of state and 14 as heads of government. Women currently hold 23 (4.6%) of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies. Of a total 1,826 global billionaires, 197 are women – 11% of the total. Only 9% of executive officers in Silicon Valley are women.


That these wretched stats continue year after year is a serious and pressing issue. But there’s hardly a void of powerful women – and the numbers are growing. That is, if we enlarge our focus from only those who possess the greatest wealth or the heaviest corporate hammer to include the women whose influence and impact may be greater than the sum of their titles.

The headlines remind us whenever another woman gets the top job. Examples: GM’s Mary Barra, Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen, IMF head Christine Lagarde. But the fact that a great many of the women on this list are not the pointy head of the pyramid –such as Facebook’s Sandberg and Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, or Gwynne Shotwell, COO of SpaceX, and Apple’s Angela Ahrendts – doesn’t dim their enormous clout. They appear on this list because they illustrate a new math– it turns out you don’t need to be No. 1 to be a Most Powerful.

The 2015 power women list features eight heads of state (plus one monarch) who run nations with a combined GDP of $9.1 trillion with over 600 million citizens –including the newly elected Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz. The 24 corporate CEOs control nearly $1 trillion in annual revenues, and 18 of the women here founded their own companies or foundations, including our youngest self-made billionaire, Elizabeth Holmes, 31. Speaking of, this year’s class has 15 billionaires with cumulative net worth of nearly $75 billion. The total social media footprint (Twitter, YouTube) of all 100 Power Women is nearly 475 million followers and fans.



Newcomers: Nineteen are new to the list in 2015. Ana Patricia Botin, the new chair of Banco Santander, makes a strong showing at No. 18. Other names to know: Google CFO Ruth Porat, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, power pop star Taylor Swift, and top venture capitalist Jenny Lee of GGV Capital.


Hall of Fame: Seven women who appeared on the inaugural list in 2004 are still here today: Melinda Gates, Christine Lagarde, Hillary Clinton and Indra Nooyi. Also, of course, Oprah, Queen Elizabeth II, and Ho Ching.



She’s the first: Nearly half the women featured here are “female firsts”, such as GM’s Barra, the most world’s most powerful businesswoman, and Fed Chair Janet Yellen, the top global state banker. Drew Gilpin Faust is the first female president of Harvard, Folorunsho Alakija is the first self-made African billionaire, and Sara Blakely was the first female self-made billionaire to sign The Giving Pledge, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s bid to encourage the world’s richest to give at least half their wealth to charity. And then there’s Hillary Clinton. Her CV is chock full of firsts: The only first lady to become a U.S. senator turned secretary of state turned presidential candidate x 2. Now a 2016 candidate, bets are on that she may be the first woman elected to the Oval Office.

Women in tech: Technology takes a fourth turn as a category on the Power Women list. Out of 18 in total, seven tech women made the top 25 this year, including Sandberg, YouTube’s CEO Susan Wojcicki, IBM’s Ginni Rometty, HP’s Meg Whitman and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer.


The rising tide of female entrepreneurs: A remarkable number of women are founders or owners of their own enterprises, not a few of whose eponymous companies are synonymous with high fashion. Consider Miuccia Prada, Tory Burch and Diane von Furstenberg. Other self-made self-starters include Winfrey, Alibaba’s cofounder Lucy Peng, billionaire founder-CEO Elizabeth Holmes, Chinese real estate tycoon Zhang Xin, and Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, India’s first biotech entrepreneur.



Geographic diversity: More than half of the women (59) on the list are American, including immigrants such as von Furstenberg (Belgium), Ambassador Samantha Power (Ireland), Weili Dai (China), Donna Langley (UK), and Padmasree Warrior (India). Asia-Pacific citizens make the second strongest showing at 18. Latin America and the Middle East have four regionals on the list, and there are 12 Europeans and three Africans with a slot.


The new celebrity role models: Sure, they’re famous but they deserve special attention outside their day job. Oprah founded both Harpo Productions and The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. Joining the efforts of the U.N. are Angelina Jolie, Shakira and Yao Chen, the Refugee Agency’s Goodwill Ambassador in China. Taylor Swift donated five figures to the New York City Department of Education from sales of “Welcome to New York”, and promises to continue to give as long as the song sells. Entertainers making a mint as entrepreneurs include Beyoncé and Sofia Vergara.



Notable drop-offs: The surge in newcomers means 19 women are off the list from last year, among them Margaret Hamburg, Amy Pascal, Maria as Gracas Silva Foster, Gail Kelly, Helene Gayle, Patricia Woertz and Joyce Banda, all out of their former jobs. Celebrities Lady Gaga and Gisele Bundchen are gone, having fallen in influence/impact below the 100 line. The same is true for Chua Sock Koong, Sun Yafang, Jennifer Li, Hu Shuli and Fatima Al Jaber.