Forbes lists record number of women billionaires

March 4, 2014

There are more women billionaires now than ever before – 172 of them according to Forbes magazine’s 2014 Billionaire’s List, up from 138 last year.  And a sixth of all newcomers on the list are women.

Famous names include Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, U.S. TV celebrity Oprah Winfrey, fashion designer Tory Burch, British betting queen Denise Coates and the first female Nigerian billionaire Folorunsho Alakija.

However, women still only account for around a tenth of the 1,645 billionaires identified by Forbes on Tuesday as it published its 28thannual list of the richest people on the planet.

Their net worth? A mind-boggling $6.4 trillion.

The increasing presence on women in the list of the world’s top-earners is certainly noteworthy, possibly indicating that climbing the ladder is getting a bit easier for women year by year.

It’s not just the Forbes list. On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia’s National Commercial Bank appointed a woman as chief executive of its investment banking arm for the first time. Given it’s Saudi Arabia we’re talking about, this scores double.

Recently, Mary Barra was appointed as chief executive of General Motors (GM), the first woman to head a major company in the automotive industry.

And last year Angela Ahrendts, who had already held a top position at British fashion company Burberry, was hired by Apple to head its retail operation starting in mid-2014.

I was fascinated by the story of Indian M&A banker Anu Aiyengar who, at the time she interviewed for a job at a top Wall Street bank nearly two decades ago, was told she belonged to “the wrong gender, wrong color and wrong country”.

Now she’s a top managing director at JP Morgan Chase.

So there are positive signs that women are making headway in the corporate and financial world, despite the fact they are still under-represented on companies’ boards and the pay-gap between men and women has not gone away.

Women made up 15.6 percent of top executives and managers at U.S. investment banks in 2012, compared with 17.7 percent in 2007, according to annual studies published by the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Nonetheless, a Pew Research survey conducted last year in the United States found that women are increasingly moving into higher positions both in government and business. They make up nearly half the workforce, and the share of women in managerial and administrative occupations is nearly equal to that of men – 15 percent compared with 17 percent, the Guardian reported.

In the UK, research by the BBC in 2012 found less than a third of the country’s most influential posts were held by women.

So the picture of gender parity in business and the work place is still very much a mixed one.

Also look at this year’s Forbes chart. As Forbes journalist Connie Guglielmo points out, it’s interesting to note that only 32 of the 172 billionaire women are self-made women, meaning they didn’t inherit their fortune from a husband, father or sibling.

The world’s richest woman is Christy Walton with a net worth of $36.7 billion. Walton inherited her fortune from her husband John, one of the sons of the founder of U.S. department store Wal-Mart.

So you have to tread carefully in jumping to any conclusions on the basis of such lists. Yes, women are making strides towards equality with men, and not only in business. But I wouldn’t look at Forbes’ list as an indicator of that progress.

PHOTO: Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg laughs at the Iab Mixx Conference and Expo in New York October 2, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Segar

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