The new face of wealth wears lipstick

Britain has long been known as a friendly place for high-achieving women. It's had a female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and Queen Elizabeth II has ruled for 52 years. Now there's a new milestone: For the first time women make up a larger part of the wealthy population than their male counterparts.

The country has 299,300 women with £200,000 (about $363,800) or more in liquid assets - cash, shares, and bonds - compared with 271,700 men.

That means that women make up about 52 percent of the wealthy population in Britain, versus 47 percent for men. And their numbers have been steadily increasing since the late 1990s: The number of affluent women rose from 231,000 in 1997 to 272,000 in 2002.

Observers say there are several reasons behind the trend - women moving into careers with higher salaries, starting their own businesses, and investing wisely, and more equitable division of inheritances. They also hint that in the United States, women may also overtake men in terms of wealth.

"I think there are a couple of reasons why women are becoming wealthier in Britain," says Anne Brookes of Coutts, a private bank owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland. "Firstly, there's been a change in the traditional role of women overall - they have more of a desire for independence. And there's greater equality in the professions like law and banking."

"Women are increasingly commanding higher salaries and accumulating wealth throughout their careers," says Oliver Guirdham, a financial analyst with Datamonitor PLC, a business-information company, and author of a report on Britain's wealthy citizens.

About 26 percent of all British businesses are female-owned, and women are running some of the more successful businesses in the country.

"Demographics also play a major role in the number of high net-worth women," says Mr. Guirdham, who notes that 53 percent of the affluent are over 65. Women make up a large proportion of this demographic group.... Spousal inheritance also becomes an important factor."

Family wealth is no longer handed down just to the male members of a family, but is now being divided equally between siblings of both sexes.

Another factor is that high-earning individuals will often share assets with their partners in order to mitigate taxes, which means women may appear to have more money than they actually do, Guirdham points out.

But many British women are also reaping big rewards from investment in the stock market. "Women in general are more conservative in the way they invest," says Guirdham. "They often choose nontech stocks, which didn't lose as much value in the recent stock market downturn. By investing wisely, women's equity tends to be better protected."

With women in Britain doing so well financially, could their American counterparts be close to matching their success?

"I definitely think so," says Leslie Grossman, founder and president of the Women's Leadership Exchange, which helps women expand their businesses. "Women in the US are growing bigger and bigger businesses, million-dollar-plus companies, and at a faster rate than men."

According to Ms. Grossman, one in 11 women in America now owns a business, and women-owned companies with 100 or more employees saw a growth rate of 44 percent between 1997 and 2000. Million-dollar revenues for businesses owned by women grew 32 percent during the same period.

"Both figures were twice the rate of comparably-sized firms, which is a polite way of saying twice the rate of companies owned by men," adds Grossman.

From 1996 to 1998, the number of affluent US women increased by 68 percent, compared to a 36 percent increase for men, according to Spectrum Marketing Research in San Francisco.

There's another trend that could create additional female millionaires: More women are opting to leave corporate America to start their own ventures.

"Ironically," says Pam Little, editor of WomensWallStreet.com, "although many women have left their corporate jobs for family reasons, they have in turn developed extremely successful businesses or products, and are now rolling in the cash.... We can expect to see many more women in the US receiving their millionaire badge very soon."

Like their British counterparts, many women in the US are increasing their wealth through careful, long-term investment in the stock market.

Once upon a time little girls on both sides of the Atlantic may have dreamed about marrying a millionaire. These days they're dreaming about running their own companies. Will little boys dream about marrying them?

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