Published:  12:00 AM, 21 February 2017

Why aren't there more female billionaires?

Gina Reinhart is an exception to the rule among the rich.

Women have been rapidly climbing the employment and wage ladders in recent decades. But only a small fraction has made it to the top rungs - and their progress may be slowing.

 New research shows that after making big strides in the 1980s and '90s, the number of women breaking into the top 1 per cent of earners has stalled. Women account for only 16 per cent of the 1 per cent, a number that has remained essentially flat over the past decade, according to a paper by three economists.

"The higher up you move in the income distribution, the lower the proportion of women," said Gabriel Zucman, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and an author of the paper, which analyses gender in the 1 per cent. "It shows that there is a fundamental form of inequality at the top related to gender."

The world of billionaires and millionaires, measured by wealth, also remains a predominantly male club. Of the nearly 2500 billionaires in the world, only 294 (about 12 per cent) are women, according to Wealth-X, a research firm.

The number of female billionaires is growing only half as fast as the male billionaire population, Wealth-X says. And women may even be losing ground in the millionaire population: Worldwide, the number of women worth $US30 million or more declined in 2015, even as the equivalent male population grew.

Of course, women are making inroads among the rich. By some measures, there are more wealthy or high-earning women than ever, in the United States and around the world. In 2000, there were 11 female billionaires on the planet, according to Forbes; by 2016, there were 190. (Forbes and Wealth-X have different tallies for the female billionaire population.)

Yet cracking the "diamond ceiling" appears to be getting harder. According to the paper that Zucman and two other economists wrote for the non-profit National Bureau of Economic Research - his collaborators were the well-known Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics and Emmanuel Saez of Berkeley - women tripled their share of the top 1 per cent of earners from 1980-2000, to 9.2 per cent. Yet from 2000-14, their share grew only to 11.5 per cent.

The slowdown stands in stark contrast to the gains made by women in the broader workforce. Median pre-tax income for working-age women more than quintupled between 1962 and 2014, to $US20,000.

 It's still far below the median pre-tax income for men, which, at $US35,000, has stayed roughly the same since 1964, according to the research paper. (The paper uses "labor income" as its definition of income, which does not include capital gains and certain other sources of wealth.)

The women's wealth gap would be even worse without inherited fortunes. According to Wealth-X, of the 294 female billionaires in the world, only 49 are self-made. The rest owe their fortunes partly or entirely from an inheritance.

Yet even as many women are making the rich lists, others are dropping off. In the United States, one of the highest-flying self-made female billionaires, Elizabeth Holmes, recently became the highest-profile financial casualty: As the medical-testing company she founded, Theranos, started to collapse amid fraud allegations, Holmes' net worth plummeted from about $US4.5 billion to next to nothing, according to Forbes.

So why there are so few women at the top of the wealth pyramid? And what needs to change?

Julia Pimsleur, the founder of the multimillion-dollar Little Pim language-instruction company and daughter of language training entrepreneur Paul Pimsleur, said discrimination in the executive suite and the world of venture capital remained a stubborn force.

"There is unconscious bias in the system," she said. "I believe there are many men who would like to see more women at the top.

"I don't think they're all actively trying to keep women out but some discrimination still exists."
Martine Rothblatt, a serial entrepreneur, has a unique perspective on female 1 per centers. She not only founded Sirius Satellite Radio, but she also founded and serves as chief executive of American Therapeutics, a pharmaceuticals company. Rothblatt was the highest-paid female chief executive in the country in 2013, with compensation of $US38 million, yet she does not see her success as a victory for women. She was born as Martin and underwent gender reassignment surgery in 1994.

"I've only been a woman for half of my life, and there's no doubt that I've benefited hugely from being a guy," she told Fortune magazine.

In an interview, Rothblatt had some surprising suggestions for helping women reach the top. She supports eliminating "say on pay" rules that allow shareholders to vote on executive compensation, and eliminating shareholder advisory groups. "If shareholders do not like the pay a woman is receiving as CEO, they should simply sell the stock, and vice versa," she said.

"I am confident that from the girls who participate in First we will achieve gender parity in top income generation over the next generation," Rothblatt said. "The girl who can dominate a field of robots is a woman who can dominate a field of men."

The author is an American
photographer and documentary filmmaker

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