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Women still seen as objects not agents in 'powerful' list

How do we define what makes a powerful woman in today's world?

A recent list published by Forbes magazine listing the top 100 female power players of 2010 prompts the question. For men, it seems, the answer is self-evident. Captains of industry, world leaders, those who influence opinion and public policy. For men, power is measured in political, economic and military terms. But the definition seemingly differs when applied to women. Forbes names Michelle Obama as number one, while Oprah Winfrey is number three and Lady Gaga comes in at number seven. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, thankfully gets a look in at number four, having dropped from number one since last year, while Hilary Clinton, arguably the most powerful female in American politics, is ranked at number five.

Does Lady Gaga count as a captain of industry? Certainly, she represents a very powerful brand. An extremely smart and creative one. Of course, she has managed to tap the pocket money of an entire generation, which no doubt adds up to a power of sorts. But she's not the CEO of her brand, she's the commodity. Sure, she's parlayed a unique sort of creativity into significant personal wealth. But her ranking is not based on her being the seventh-most powerful woman in the world in fiscal terms. It relates to the extent of her fame. Which is a rather dubious measure of influence. She's dictated to not only by her record company, but, by her own admission, is also at the mercy of her mercurial fans. The last time she appeared in the news before the Forbes story, was under headlines describing how her record company had directed her to gain weight, having decided she was too thin. Which doesn't sound like power to me. What's more, the way she uses her popular appeal is not particularly meaningful. She is the object, not the agent, of her own success.

And what does it say that coming in at number one, the most powerful woman in the world, apparently, is Michelle Obama? Her place secured, presumably, by simple proximity to the man who holds the highest office in politics. Not by having been voted into that position herself, unlike Angela Merkel, who currently holds the reins of Europe's largest economy. In the power stakes, Merkel has been replaced by a woman who is a figurehead rather than an operator.

The problem with this list is that it conflates popularity with power. What's more, the women chosen are best-known for their popularity amongst other women. Gaga's fans are mostly young girls. Michelle Obama is credited with engaging the female vote on her husband's behalf -- but her role is strictly supportive. She has no executive power, and her influence is borrowed from the man whose ambition she helped to realise.

The implied message within the Forbes selection which rates Michelle Obama over Hilary Clinton and Angela Merkel is that to exercise power, female achievements are measured according to the approval and acceptance of other women. Like women's fiction and women's film, female public figures are automatically thought of in terms of how they appeal to the ladies in the audience. This betrays the assumption that those personalities which speak to women will not also speak to men. Women in the public eye are still considered to be representing a niche. They are not thought of in terms of how they are also relevant to men, or the public as a whole, let alone in terms of their capacity to lead or govern them.

The very real advancements that women have made recently are not

reflected in the Forbes list, which conflates popularity with power, and visibility with influence.

We are still, it seems, more comfortable with the notion that women should win hearts rather than run countries or companies. Women in public life, by the Forbes measure, are valued more for their personalities rather than their judgment. They are considered to wield most power in representative, figurehead roles rather than executive ones. So long as this view pervades, women will continue to be underrepresented in the area's of public life where they have the best hope of making real, meaningful changes. Not just for other women, but for men too. For society as a whole.

Sunday Independent