Why Don't More Women Make Billions?


It struck me that a woman was interviewing another woman about the Forbes list of richest people in the world last week. Michele Norris of NPR asked Senior Editor Luisa Kroll of Forbes about the small number of women on the list.

"Oh, it's terrible," Kroll said. "It's really -- it's 89 women from the whole list. It's less than 10 percent, but even more telling, I think, is the fact that there are only 14 self-made female billionaires in the entire world, 14 out of 1,011... Interesting, among those 14, seven of them have made their fortunes on mainland China." Two other women are Indian. Oprah Winfrey is clear down in 400th place.

I can see how these journalists might be put off. No doubt in their worldview, this list represents power. In an era in which women have fought and won a place in boardrooms, Congress, and even as heads of state -- and we came so close to having a woman as U.S. president -- women are barely represented on the money = power list. Most of those who are landed on the list because of what their husband, father or other male relative achieved before his death. Call these "man-made women billionaires."

This is not how I see it. I have been immersing myself in The Ethical Executive: Becoming Aware of the Root Causes of Unethical Behavior: 45 Psychological Traps that Every One of Us Falls Prey To, by Robert Hoyk, and Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity From a Consumer Culture by Shannon Hayes. While these two books don't on the face of it have much in common, I find that they say strikingly similar things about Norris and Kroll's concerns. Hayes, whose concept was bizarrely called "femivorism" in this weekend's New York Times Magazine, sums it up nicely.

The Degeneration of Feminism?

"Where has feminism degenerated to, that we would fret over our minority status in disproportionately taking up the earth's resources?" she asks. "Feminism, I thought, was about the quest for social justice, self-actualization, creative fulfillment, balance of power and autonomy. I didn't think it was about how successful women could be at playing the post-industrial game of what Korten refers to as making a killing for a few while so many people in the world can't even make a living. This also seems out of line with the New Wave of feminism, which brings ecological justice into the fold."

David Korten is a former professor at both Harvard and Stanford Business Schools. He has written extensively about how our current economy is extractive -- "where corporate wealth [is] regarded as the foundation of economic health, where mining the earth's resources and exploiting our international neighbors [is] accepted as simply the cost of doing business" -- and how it would be far more sensible if we were more focused on an economy in which the health of people, the environment, and the community were the foundation of economic health. In other words, a "life-serving economy."

In such an economy, women who were reporting the news would not sigh over how terrible it was that women were not doing a good job of making a killing at the expense of countless millions of lesser human beings and the communities and environment in which they live. Let's take China as an example, as Chinese women are so disproportionately represented on this list of self-made women billionaires. China is not known for its care of either the poor or the earth. In fact, when one wants to build a factory in China -- say, to make pleather -- one is permitted to blow up the tops of mountains and dump those in the valleys so that the land can be flat and easier to pave and appropriate for the production of cheap, disposable goods by cheap, disposable people.

Perhaps for the sort of feminist that both Hayes and I believe ourselves to be, enormous wealth is not a mark of honor, but an indictment. It is proof that, instead of working to better the lives of employees and consumers who are "stakeholders" of your business enterprises, you have instead extracted vast wealth to use for, what? Surely not happiness.

Can't Buy Me Happiness: Even with a Billion Dollars

If there was a lesson to be learned from the popular culture of my youth, it was that money cannot buy love or happiness, the latter conclusion now reinforced by multiple psychological studies. In fact, the more money one has, the more fleeting and illusory happiness becomes.

Hoyk talks about this fleeting, illusory happiness in his book. Money is, in fact, one of the ethical traps he identifies as causes for some of the biggest economic calamities of modern times; for instance, the collapse of Enron, which preceded the publication of his book, and the falls of Bernie Madoff, AIG and Lehman Brothers, which followed it. He writes in the section titled, "Trap 8: Money," that we've done a great job telling ourselves the truth, but not living the truth.

"We all say that money can't buy happiness, but deep down we believe it can," he writes, describing a questionnaire given to CEOs in which a striking 70% said their top priority in their lives was "Financial Independence is Very Important."

More compelling than data from the boardroom is a 13-year study from Dr. Edward Diener of the University of Illinois, cited by Hoyk in The Ethical Executive.

Diener "found that the amount of influence that money has on our happiness is less than 2%," Hoyk reports. Surveys of executives have shown that, not only do we think money can make us happy, when in fact it cannot, but the amount of money we think it will take to make us happy is always more than we have. Once we achieve a level of income that we previously thought was satisfactory, we recalibrate our expectations and choose a new, much higher goal. Even the happiness that does come from getting a raise or a better-paying job lasts a very short time -- between one month for a small raise and as many as 18 months for an enormous windfall such as winning the lottery.

But no matter what happens to us financially that gives us short-term pleasure, we always return to our previous levels of happiness, usually within six weeks. Once we have returned to that former state, if we indeed believe deep down that money will give us happiness, we need more, and more and more. And we're never more happy than we were when we got that first job in high school, that first raise, that first $500 bonus.

Women Have It Figured Out?

Feminists in the U.S., judging from some of the books and essays they've been churning out in the last decade, have begun to recognize this fact. As Hayes puts it in her book, "Life gets away from us when we over-invest our energies into acquiring objects and achievements that provide only temporary satisfaction," instead of those circumstances (family, community, religion, self-esteem) that determine the other 98% of our happiness. She argues that a life spent "living joyously with little money," a life centered on the home, family and community, is the path to true happiness, "personal fulfillment and social change."

Many other writers, including the New York Times Magazine's Peggy Orenstein, who wrote about "femivorism," have taken on similar themes. Nearly all of them say that the family income that achieves "financial independence" is not a billion dollars, not a CEO's salary, but somewhere around $40,000 a year. And for those who achieve much higher levels of affluence, all too often that success depends on the low-paid work of other women to make it possible, says feminist writer Sharon Astyk, commenting on Orenstein's piece.

"I have often argued that the version of American feminism that largely succeeded -- the one in which freedom was framed in the terms money and the right to work 60 hours a week for someone who times your bathroom breaks -- succeeded because it was so very profitable for industrial capitalism," Astyk writes. "Since only the most affluent of us can afford to pay nannies and house cleaners fairly, the equity that affluent women and men achieve often is built on the backs of poorer people who take on the labor that they escaped."

The idea that enormous feminine power (if derived from money) is built on the backs of other, poorer women can be extremely uncomfortable to any woman who is educated and ethically aware enough to have weighed the trade-offs. I have observed that the more children a feminist writer has, the more likely it is that she has written something about this discomfort. The more introspective she is, the more likely it is that she is making far less than an educated, intelligent, independent thinker like her would be expected to make.

The Nanny Trap

Very few women are billionaires partly because women are more likely to get this dichotomy. A woman is more likely to have paid another mother in cash to care for her children and to have recognized how the excrement is, indeed, flowing downstream. I know many, many professional women whose nannies are mothers from other countries -- the Philippines, Haiti, Cuba, Thailand, Guatemala -- and they send home cash to other, even poorer women who are caring for their own children.

To what, then, can we attribute the presence on the billionaire's list of someone like Meg Whitman, who has two children and a professional husband; who has built her vast fortune on the fees of millions of women who are selling things on eBay so that they can stay home with their children? I don't know.

I do not mourn women a spot on the list of billionaires; I do not gnash my teeth because the extractive wealth is shifting to Asia and away from the West; I see these shifts as signs of hope. Like Hayes, "while we all enjoy having a little extra folding money, I feel sad for the poor lost soul who still equates dollars with happiness, and feels driven to fritter away their life energy on such an extreme accumulation of wealth."

I am sorry for you, Meg Whitman, Carlos Slim and all those newly minted Chinese billionaires. May you use your extreme wealth better than those who have gone before you.