Skip to main content

THE WORLD’S MOST POWERFUL WOMEN 2021

Published 9 months ago
By Forbes

Forbes’ 18th annual list of power women includes 40 CEOs, 19 world leaders, an immunologist and, for the first time in more than a decade, a new number one.

LIKE SO MUCH in 2021, the state of female power around the world looks a bit different than it did just one or two years ago. Women have gained ground in the c-suite—among the women on Forbes’ 18th annual list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women are 40 CEOs, the most since 2015, who oversee a record $3.3 trillion in revenue. But what they gained in the boardroom, they lost elsewhere. For instance, there are two fewer female heads of states than a year ago.

Nothing illustrates the dynamics of this list better than the change at the very top. For only the third time in the 18 years we’ve compiled this ranking, German chancellor Angela Merkel is not No. 1. With her imminent retirement from public office comes a chance to find a new number one; this year, that honor goes to billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. She’s the third richest woman in the world, but it’s her unfettered access to that money—and her determination to donate it in a way that is meaningful and revolutionary—that puts her above the competition.

“We are all attempting to give away a fortune that was enabled by systems in need of change,” Scott said this summer.

Just behind her at No. 2 is U.S. vice president Kamala Harris, who moves up one spot now that she’s been sworn into office, swapping places with Christine Lagarde, the president of the European Central Bank who is now No. 3. All of these women represent the driving thesis behind the compilation of the list: it’s not just enough to have money, or a position of power.

A person must be doing something with their fortune, voice or public platform. Consider Rosalind Brewer, the former chief operating officer of Starbucks who took the helm of Walgreens in March and is currently the only Black woman running an S&P 500 company.

A longtime champion of diversity in the workplace, Brewer rose 15 spots to No. 17. Or BioNTech cofounder and immunologist Özlem Türeci, who is one of 20 newcomers this year. She makes her debut on the list at No. 48 not simply because she co-founded a biotech company, but also because of her role in leading the company’s development of the mRNA Covid vaccine, in partnership with global pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer.


N

othing illustrates the dynamics of this list better than the change at the very top. For only the third time in the 18 years we’ve compiled this ranking, German chancellor Angela Merkel is not No. 1. With her imminent retirement from public office comes a chance to find a new number one; this year, that honor goes to billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. She’s the third richest woman in the world, but it’s her unfettered access to that money—and her determination to donate it in a way that is meaningful and revolutionary—that puts her above the competition. “We are all attempting to give away a fortune that was enabled by systems in need of change,” Scott said this summer. Just behind her at No. 2 is U.S. vice president Kamala Harris, who moves up one spot now that she’s been sworn into office, swapping places with Christine Lagarde, the president of the European Central Bank who is now No. 3. All of these women represent the driving thesis behind the compilation of the list: it’s not just enough to have money, or a position of power. A person must be doing something with their fortune, voice or public platform. Consider Rosalind Brewer, the former chief operating officer of Starbucks who took the helm of Walgreens in March and is currently the only Black woman running an S&P 500 company. A longtime champion of diversity in the workplace, Brewer rose 15 spots to No. 17. Or BioNTech cofounder and immunologist Özlem Türeci, who is one of 20 newcomers this year. She makes her debut on the list at No. 48 not simply because she cofounded a biotech company, but also because of her role in leading the company’s development of the mRNA Covid vaccine, in partnership with global pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer.

Also making her debut on the list, at no. 94, is the new president of Tanzania, Samia Suluhu Hassan; she has been instrumental in implementing Covid protocols in her country. Then there’s Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, whose outspoken adherence to freedom and democracy in the face of increased pressure from China vaulted her 28 spots to No. 9.

“We must safeguard our shared values to ensure our free and democratic way of life,” she said in late November.

Some women on this list saw their power eroded in the past year. That’s particularly true for some of the women in China, where President Xi Jinping’s crackdown of the tech sector and business activities has meant less autonomy—and, in turn, lower ranks for the likes of Gree Electric’s Dong Mingzhu (down 11 spots to No. 58) and Yum China CEO Joey Wat (down 39 slots to No. 73).

Even Queen Elizabeth isn’t immune from a reevaluation: now ranked No. 70, the monarch dropped 24 spots as a result of her diminished public appearances and the myriad of reputation crises that hit the Crown this year (including, but not limited to, Duchess Meghan Markle’s allegations of racist treatment).

While the people on the 18th annual list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women come from 30 countries and territories and work across finance, technology, politics, philanthropy, entertainment and more, they are united by a sense of duty. Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower, and No. 100 on this year’s list, didn’t set out to release reams of data on her former employer, but has said she couldn’t stand by and watch as the company put profits over people.

Taylor Swift (No. 78) didn’t make her first albums intending to re-record them a decade later, but it’s what she’s had to do to retain her ownership rights—and to prove to other artists the value of their work.

“Our experience can’t be dictated by what we’re allowed to do or given permission to do,” says film director Ava Duvernay (No. 80). If there’s a thesis statement for this list, that’s as close as it comes: These are the women who are rewriting the rules of business, finance and politics. Their work is needed now more than ever.

Edited by Moira Forbes and Maggie McGrath with reporting by Nicolette Jones and Erika Burho

Sign Up for Our Newsletter Daily Update

Get the best of Forbes Africa sent straight to your inbox with breaking business news, insights and updates from experts across the continent.
Get this delivered to your inbox, and more info about about our products and services. By signing up for newsletters, you are agreeing to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.
Related Topics: #Africa, #Coronavirus, #Coronavirus Outbreak, #Coronavirus Pandemic, #COVID-19, #Featured, #Forbes Women, #News Letter, #newsletter, #Nigeria.