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Forbes’s Record Number of Women Billionaires Is Bad For Women

Forbes’s Record Number of Women Billionaires Is Bad For Women

On Monday, Forbes unveiled its 28th annual billionaires list, and 2013 is already being touted as the year women finally broke through the diamond chandelier-covered ceiling. "Record number of women make 28th annual Forbes billionaires list," trumpeted the Guardian. "Girl Power!," cried the Daily Mail. And with the number of women billionaires on the list up 25 percent from last year, and women making up a record percentage of newcomers, 2014’s list does look something like progress — at least in the rarefied world of the global super-rich. But look a little closer, and that initial burst of gender optimism seems misplaced.

All those rich and powerful women? Let’s say many of them have the men in their lives to thank for their place on this year’s list. Only 32 of the 172 women billionaires were primarily responsible for building their own fortunes. Those celebrated newcomers? Just 5 of 42 are designated self-made by Forbes. (The magazine’s use of the term "self-made," I should note, is somewhat vague; the closest thing to a definition the magazine provided was that the billionaire had "a meaningful hand in building" her own fortune.)

In particular, it’s at the top of the list where the self-made women really drop off. The top 20 women on the list are all heiresses: Two of the three richest women, Christy Walton (No. 9) and Alice Walton (No. 13), are the daughter-in-law and daughter, respectively, of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. Go a bit further down the list, and you find  Jacqueline Mars (No. 31), who, along with her two brothers inherited her father Forrest Sr.’s candy company; Gina Rinehart (No. 46), who inherited her father’s iron ore and coal fortune in Australia; and Susanne Klatten (No. 49), who owns nearly 50 percent of her family’s BMW empire. It’s not until number 22 on the list that you find the first self-made woman billionaire: Chan Laiwa, the founder of one of Beijing’s largest real estate development companies. (Other "self-made women" included Nigeria’s first female billionaire, Folorunsho Alakija (No. 687), whose company owns a large stake in one of the country’s most prolific oil blocks, as well as Facebook’s ubiquitous Sheryl Sandberg (No. 1540).

Is this a matter of the largest fortunes taking longer than a lifetime to amass, leading to a higher concentration of inherited wealth at the top of the list? Unlikely: 13 of the 20 richest men in the world, for instance are self-made. This isn’t to say these women aren’t hard-working, of course; some of the women hold high leadership positions at the companies they’ve completely or partially inherited. But this list that’s being hailed as a marker of a women’s progress really is just more evidence that the glass ceiling — at least at these heights — remains very real.

There’s another takeaway from the Forbes list: 2013 was a great year for the super-rich, whose collective wealth now stands at $6.4 trillion, up from $5.4 trillion the previous year. The list made its debut a little more than a month after Oxfam noted that the richest 1 percent have increased their share of the wealth in 24 of the 26 countries for which Oxfam had data and that the richest 85 people in the world possess the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of people worldwide (you can see all of those 85 here). Most of the women on Forbes‘s list, who aren’t exactly shining examples of meritocracy, attest more to how these inequalities live on generation after generation than any semblance of gender progress.

In other words, sure, you might look at Forbes’s 2014 billionaires list and see women’s empowerment, if you squint hard enough.  But there are a lot more markers here of what’s going wrong with society than what’s changing for the better.