The incredible wealth that a few individuals hold is quite impressive, but what is surprising is that most of those people with the greatest wealth are men. Female billionaires are scarce compared to male billionaires, and women are even missing from the self-made billionaires category (only three percent were women this year). This is a potential problem for several reasons. According to Caroline Freund and Sarah Oliver of the Peterson Institute of International Economics, the lack of extreme female wealth in comparison to male wealth is a problem because of the potential for social injustice and because of discrimination. Although rarely talked of, there is the potential for this issue to be a worldwide issue, because women make up a very small percentage of billionaires across the world.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012 the median earnings of full-time working women were 77 percent of that for men working full-time. Although this isn’t a surprising statistic, as the trend has been similar for many years, it’s important to note that women are consistently making less than men overall, in addition to the very top earners.
Women represented just over ten percent of Forbes‘ list of world billionaires (172 women out of 1,645 billionaires), which is actually an increase from the 138 on the list the year before. Although the statistics suggest that more women are becoming billionaires, the overall percentage is very small. Spanx founder Sara Blakely, as well as Oprah Winfrey, are two of the more well-known billionaires.
The percentage of female billionaires is relatively small in most parts of the world. According to Freund and Oliver, Chili, Switzerland, and Sweden appear to have a relatively high share of female billionaires (33.3, 33.3, 26.3). In Japan, the female share of billionaires is only 3.7 percent, in Canada it’s 3.1, and in Russia, only 0.9 percent; Egypt and Malaysia reported no female share of billionaires. Although some of these nations arguably offer more opportunities to women than others do, the fact is that there are few female billionaires in most countries.
As Freund and Oliver note, if few female billionaires exist in a country, then the elite members of the country are less likely to show the values and interests of the general population. The fact that so few female billionaires exist (in proportion to male billionaires) also raises the issue of discrimination. Research shows that women make less than men even when they have the same education, earn less in most jobs, and often have to face earning less so that they can balance children and a career.
The question of why women often make less than men is a difficult one to answer. There are many bright, creative, inventive women who have made millions or billions off of their own ideas. However, with so few women making the list of self-made billionaires, we have to wonder why. It’s also surprising that less than 30 percent of inherited billionaires are women globally. That just doesn’t make sense when compared to the percent of women that make up the global population. So where are all of the rich women?
We don’t really know why women continue to make less money than men, even at the highest levels of wealth. According to the AAUW, the pay gap is worse in some states than others (in Wyoming women only made 64 percent of what men were paid). The AAUW also says that the gap is worse for women of color, and the age gap grows with age. In order to change the fact that women often get paid less than men, AAUW suggests salary audits, improved negotiation skills for women, and new policies as well.
This issue has the potential to cause great discontent, both at the billionaire level and also at the much lesser income levels.