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The Missing Billionairess


new internationalist
issue 259 - September 1994

The missing billionaires
Nikki van der Gaag wonders why there are
so few women among the super-rich.


Come on then. You've noticed that all the rich are men. So - being sound NI readers - you rack your brains for examples of rich women. See how many you can come up with. Not just wealthy women, but really rich ones, super- rich ones, 'robber baronesses'.

OK. I'll make life easier. Queen Elizabeth II. Imelda Marcos and her cupboard of shoes. Cleopatra, perhaps. Hey, but that's all inherited wealth or money-by-marriage. What about rich businesswomen?

In the UK Anita Roddick who started The Body Shop which sells cruelty-free products made of ingredients like apricot kernels and banana-extract is a millionairess. But she is always in the news because this is so unusual. In the US, Cox Enterprises is owned by Ann Cox Chambers and Barbara Cox Anthony - worth a cool $5.8 billion. Estée Lauder nets $3.4 billion from her cosmetics... In the South? Not one woman from a Third World country is listed among the world's top 101 richest people. To be fair, there are fewer mega-rich men in the South too...

So then we start asking why? 'You could write a book on that,' say all my women friends with a wry shrug. That's what I may have to do. There's not an awful lot of books about this around, at least not specifically on the issue of gender and wealth. The spell-checking device on my computer doesn't even recognize the word 'millionairess'.

Some of the reasons are obvious. They are the reasons why women are more generally oppressed in a patriarchal society. Discrimination affects women's access to education and to power-structures. Most of the rich men are not the classic rags-to- riches boys; they were born with silver or gold spoons already in their mouths. Even women born with money are less likely than men to inherit it. Women don't have wives - so they usually have to run a home as well as a business. They can't clinch deals in the brotherly atmosphere of the men's toilet...

Rita Mae Kelly, in her fascinating book The Gendered Economy pinpointed three major barriers to womens' success. First, the barriers that women internalize - the belief that they cannot succeed, the lack of role models and the sense that women must be passive rather than active. Secondly, the barrier caused by lack of resources - education, training, networks and domestic support. And finally, structural barriers such as employer bias, inequality of pay or sexual harassment.1

While there are few studies on women and wealth per se, there are quite a few on women as managers and on women's attitudes to power. Leaving aside those who are rich because their daddies were rich, let us look at women on the way to mega-wealth.

Modern super-rich men tend to have won their riches outside traditional management structures. Such structures are still likely to be where they started. And it doesn't take long for a woman to come up against the 'glass ceiling' - the level beyond which women cannot go. A study of 76 executive women and 22 higher-level executives - 16 men and 6 women - working in large corporate settings found six major factors in women s success: 'support from above, a strong achievement record, an ambition to succeed, managerial ability, a propensity to take career risks and the capacity to be "tough, decisive and demanding".' The authors concluded that 'in order to approach the highest levels, women are expected to have more strengths and fewer faults than their male counterparts'2 . Is there any working woman out there for whom that doesn't resonate?

Even if women have become successful in the eyes of the world - and this is a big 'if' - their attitude to their position, and to the power that it gives them, is different from men's. 'Women tend to view power as a means to promote change whereas men view power as a means of having influence over other people.'3 In other words, rich men are prepared to step on more people's toes to succeed. They have thicker skins and fewer outside responsibilities.

It's undoubtedly a cliché, but perhaps women are also more concerned about people than process, a factor which prevents them exercizing the ruthlessness of male billionaires. In addition, they have not been socialized for success. Heroes are men, not women, as my six-year-old daughter pointed out the other day. 'Why don't girls do any of the exciting things in books and films? They have to sit around being rescued and looking pretty. It's not fair.' She's right. Though wonderful new stories with girls 'doing exciting things' are being written all the time now, the traditional tales for girls are boring. As a result Rosa spends most of her time playing the Prince, not the Princess.

No 'self-made' rich person is rich unless they have a good dose of ambition. And it is difficult to be ambitious unless you have confidence in yourself and in your ability to operate within the world of work - which is dominated not only by men but by male values. If you are a woman, this may well mean suppressing what you really are in order to appear as you would like to be. This is a difficult - and sometimes damaging - thing to do. So princes do better than princesses, super-heroes better than super-heroines and super-riches better than super-richesses.

Men pay a price for their success though. Many spend all their waking hours accumulating wealth and making deals. They don't go shopping, look after kids, clean their mansions or launder their silk sheets. They don't seem to have much fun, either. Perhaps this too is important. What self-respecting woman can afford to spend 70, 80, 100 hours a week making money? This leaves her no time to get rid of the dosh, so what's the point? She'd rather have time for the really good things of life...

1 The Gendered Economy: Work, Careers and Success, by Rita Mae Kelly, Sage Publications, 1991.
2 Breaking the Glass ceiling, by Ann M Morriaon, Randall P White and Ellen Van Velson, Addison-Wesley, 1987.
3 Gender, Bureaucracy and Democracy, by Mary M Hale and Rita Mae Kelly, Greenwood, 1989.

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New Internationalist issue 259 magazine cover This article is from the September 1994 issue of New Internationalist.
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