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Why Are There So Few Female Plutocrats?

When it comes to the richest of the rich, men still dominate while their well-educated wives happily redecorate their homes.

Photo Credit: Khakimullin


There are now more women than men in the workforce, except when it comes to the richest of the rich, where men still dominate while their well-educated wives happily redecorate their homes. An excerpt from Chrystia Freeland’s new book, Plutocrats, on the strange absence of female billionaires:

For 47,745 of the 47,763 runners who competed in the New York Marathon in 2011, it was a co-ed race. Women ran alongside men, and as demanding sports such as endurance running have become socially acceptable for women, females formed an ever greater part of the pack. But for the first 18 racers, the top 0.04 percent, the marathon is exactly as segregated as it was before 1971, when women were banned from racing more than 10 miles on the theory that their delicate bodies weren’t up to the strain.

Becoming a plutocrat is like being one of those 18 men. This is not to suggest that women are somehow biologically precluded from breaking into the plutocracy, in the way that the female physique may never run a marathon as quickly as the male one. But the image is a way of illustrating a significant and rarely remarked-on aspect of the rise of the super-elite: it is almost entirely male. Consider the 2012 Forbes billionaire list. Just 104 of the 1,226 billionaires are women. Subtract the wives, daughters, and widows and you are left with a fraction of that already small number.

What’s especially striking about this absence of women at the top is that it runs so strongly counter to the trend in the rest of society. Within the 99 percent, women are earning more money, getting more educated, and gaining more power. That’s true around the world and across the social spectrum. If you aren’t a plutocrat, you are increasingly likely to have a female boss, live in a household where the main breadwinner is female, and study in a class where the top pupils are girls. As the 99 percent has become steadily pinker, the 1 percent has remained an all-boys club. One way to understand the gap between the 1 percent and the rest is as a division of the world into a vast female-dominated middle class ruled by a male elite at the top.

Another window into how the gender divide sharpens at the very top comes from the Goldin and Katz Harvard study. College is one of the arenas the women of the middle class are conquering—more than half of all U.S. undergraduates are now female, and their grade-point average is higher than that of their male peers. Young women are more likely to get their bachelor's degrees and go on to graduate school. The recession has exacerbated the gender divide, with young women responding to a tough job market by going back to school and improving their skills. Young men have not. At Harvard, which released women from the apartheid of Radcliffe only in 1973, the incoming first-year class in 2004 included more women than men.

But as soon as they graduate, Harvard women’s chances of getting to the very top decline because of the jobs they choose. Goldin and Katz found that finance and management were overwhelmingly the most lucrative fields, with financiers earning that whopping 195 percent premium. Men have responded to this incentive strongly—of the class of 1990, 38 percent of the men worked in management and finance 15 years after graduating, compared to just 23 percent of the women. By 2007, the number of women starting off in finance or management had jumped to 43 percent, but a staggering 58 percent of the men had made that same choice. You can see the difference in their incomes: in 2005, 8 percent of Harvard men earned more than $1 million; just 2 percent of the women crossed that threshold.

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