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[OP-ED] 20 Most Innovative "People" in Democracy, or 20 Most Innovative Men?

BY Katrin Verclas and Lina Srivastava | Friday, November 9 2012

Katrin Verclas is senior manager for innovation at the National Democratic Institute and director at MobileActive.org. Lina Srivastava is a lawyer and social innovation strategy consultant.

TechCrunch recently published a list titled “The 20 Most Innovative People in Democracy 2012.” The people named on the list are very good, and truly are at the forefront of changing the landscape of governance, media, and technology, primarily in the U.S. But as a list, it’s only good if author Gregory Ferenstein had titled it “The 20 Most Innovative Men in Democracy 2012.” The article effectively names only one woman: Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America. (In an odd and condescending turn, Snooki was appended to the list as a joke.)

When called out on the dearth of women on the list, Ferenstein (@ferenstein) tweeted “Yes, it is troubling our list has 1 woman. But, being over-inclusive only masks society's problems. For college, I do support Aff. Action.” (As an aside, Ferenstein obviously doesn’t understand the history, purpose, of effect of affirmative action, but that is beside the point for this article).

So TechCrunch believes acknowledging 50% of the population is “over-inclusive”?

While it is important to point out that Ferenstein is missing some of the real movers and shakers in Democracy, we first have to ask why these lists keep being published in the first place; these male-centric ‘who's who’ lists written by male journalists, edited by male editors, and featuring male innovators, to the consistent and inexplicable exclusion of formidable, significant, and (frankly) underappreciated women in the same fields.

Why does this failure to acknowledge the contributions of women in technology and innovation seem to happen over and over again? We are so tired of the “where are the women” meme, especially because we know where the innovative women are: They are in plain view if the male gatekeepers of the blogosphere would simply bother to look. But it seems that they aren’t bothering.

What gives?

Is it because the list-makers actually have little clue about the fields they write about, only seeing the often more prominent men in public places in those fields rather than really knowing about the people (often women, and sometimes in back channels) who move a field in important and innovative ways?

Is it because the list-makers are male and -- willfully or by ignorant habit -- seek out only their brethren? Creating these lists tends to create a circle of influence and access -- a kind of public backslapping that in the stereotyped narrative used to happen in locker rooms or on the golf course.

Or is it because women are still not skilled enough at putting themselves into the limelight and actively seeking acknowledgment? Should we create our own lists, as we have started doing? Or should we all much more aggressively push for inclusion in the elusive lists of the “who's who” in a given field?

We would venture to say that many of us ultimately regard these lists as unimportant, but even so, they do garner attention and recognition that then feeds on itself for further advancement (most often for the men on the lists).

Across industries, we need to answer these questions if we’re going to move past the stereotype of the “boys’ club of technology,” and create spaces in which there is due attention to women’s opportunities, perspectives, roles, and contributions, and in which there is inclusion and women and men collaborate and innovate in parity.

Whatever the reasons are for this repeated exclusion of women, no one can still claim that there are too few women in the fields of technology, innovation, or democracy and governance. There are, rather, too many to choose from in 2012. So here are some women who should rightly have been included for their innovation in supporting democracy worldwide:

Hillary Clinton: U.S. Secretary of State, who has used her tenure to commit significant resources to using technology in diplomacy and democracy. Secretary Clinton also happens to be Alec Ross' boss. Alec, meanwhile, is included on the list.

Madeleine Albright: Former U.S. Secretary of State and chair of the board of the National Democratic Institute, one of the most important and relevant organizations supporting democratic institutions and processes in 70-some countries around the world.

Ellen Miller: Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Sunlight Foundation, and one of the most innovative movers and shakers in making our democracy more equitable and accountable for over three decades.

Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir: Prime Minister of Iceland, who among other accomplishments, urged citizens this year to participate in a digitally crowdsourced constitutional reform process.

Reshma Saujani: Former Deputy Advocate for Special Initiatives at the Office of the New York City Public Advocate who founded Girls Who Code.

Catherine Bracy: Tech4Obama, one of the smartest tech innovators in the campaign.

Ginny Hunt: Google Policy powerhouse, who spearheads every election- and democracy-related initiative at Google.

Susan Crawford: Visiting Stanton Professor of the First Amendment at Harvard’s Kennedy School and Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School; Professor at Cardozo Law School; former Special Assistant to the President for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy; and member of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Advisory Council on Technology and Innovation, this leading thinker on the intersection of technology and Democracy recently published “Captive Audience: The Future of Information in America.”

Arianna Huffington: Founder, the Huffington Post, who, love her or hate her, has created a circle of influence and commentary in the blogosphere on all matters related to policy and governance (and beyond).

Sue Gardner: Executive Director, the Wikimedia Foundation, who earlier this year led the entire Wikipedia blackout against SOPA.

These women represent a set of innovators that merit inclusion on any list about innovation in democracy, but weren't included. (And there are more across the world, in various sectors, regions, and backgrounds.) So we’re making a call to journalists: Stop giving us lists that are biased and not representative of reality, where the real movers and shakers include as many women as men. Stop giving us the usual suspects. And let’s finally put a rest to this tired debate. Get real and a little more informed, and see our world for what it is now: incredible women and men making it better. In absolutely equal measure.

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