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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.

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Not too many people talk about the absence of women at the very top. That’s partly because, in a fight that’s been going on since the famous debates between Lenin and Bolshevik feminist Alexandra Kollontai, the left has a history of bullying women who dare to talk about gender at the apex of power. Doing so has been framed as a selfish concern of upper-class women, who are urged to focus their attention on the more deserving problems of their sisters at the bottom. As for the right, it has historically preferred to avoid discussion of gender and class altogether.

But the absence of women in the plutocracy is an important part of the culture of the 1 percent and a crucial way the very rich differ from everyone else. It is a powerful force in the workplace, where most plutocrats have no female peers. And it shapes their personal lives as well. The year 2009 was a watershed for the American workplace—it was the first time since data was collected that women outnumbered men on the country’s payrolls. In 2010, about four in 10 working wives were the chief breadwinners for their families.

The plutocracy, by contrast, still lives in the  Mad Men era, and family life becomes more patriarchal the richer you get. In 2005, just over a quarter of taxpayers in the top 0.1 percent had a working spouse. For the 1 percent, the figure was higher, at 38 percent, but significantly lower than in the country as a whole. There’s not a lot of mystery to these choices of the wives of the 0.1 percent, as I discovered at a dinner party when I sat next to a private equity investor. He was in his late thirties with no children, and as we chatted I learned that he had met his wife when they were both students at Yale Law School. But when I asked which firm she now worked at, I realized I had committed a faux pas. If your husband is earning $10 million a year, choosing the treadmill of billable hours really is rather bizarre. (It turns out she spends her time investing part of the family portfolio, studying art history, and decorating their Upper East Side town house.)

And it is graduates of Yale Law School and the like who are the housewives of the plutocrats. In 1979, nearly 8 percent of the 1 percent had spouses the IRS described as doing blue-collar or service-sector jobs—government speak for bosses married to their secretaries. That number has been falling ever since. What economists call assortive mating—the tendency to marry someone you resemble—is on the rise. But while the aggressive geeks of the super-elite are marrying their classmates rather than their secretaries, their highly educated wives are unlikely to work.

The plutocracy, by contrast, still lives in the ‘Mad Men’era, and family life becomes more patriarchal the richer you get.

My own suspicion is that most plutocrats privately believe women don’t make it to the top because something is missing. Most know better than to muse on this matter in public—they all remember, for instance, what that cost Larry Summers, who happens to have a sterling record of promoting the careers of his female protégés—but I can report an unguarded remark one private-equity billionaire made to me. The problem, he said, wasn’t that women weren’t as smart or even as numerate as men; he had hired many women in starting positions who were as skilled as their male counterparts.

But they still didn’t have the royal jelly: “They don’t have the killer instinct, they don’t want to fight, they won’t go for the jugular.” By way of evidence, he described a subordinate who had cried when he told her she had made a mistake. You can’t do that and win, he said.

 
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