Economy

Progress for women on the Forbes list: meaningful change, or just a fluke?

More women than ever before are appearing on Forbes' list of billionaires, but their numbers are still far below those of the men on the list.

Fans stand behind a large sign for equal pay for the women's soccer team during an international friendly soccer match between the United States and Colombia at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn., in April 2016.
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It's been a banner year for women billionaires.

At least, that's the message from Forbes' list of richest people in the world, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. According to the list, the number of women billionaires has increased to a record 227 women – up from 202 women from last year. Many of the new listees are "self-made" and joining the rankings for the first time, particularly new entrepreneurs from Asia. The women have made their fortunes on a range of ventures, some of which include smartphones, pizza, roofing, real estate, and fashion retail.

But celebration could be a little premature – at least, as far as women in general are concerned. While the number of women billionaires has inched up, they still only make up 11 percent of the 2,043-person list. And while the number of successful super-wealthy businesswomen indicates some signs of progress, it does little to solve setbacks at a more basic economic level, such as equal pay between the sexes, says Charlice Hurst, a professor at the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

"I don't find this increase terribly exciting," Dr. Hurst tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. "Self-made female billionaires now make up 2.7 percent of the list versus 2.3 percent last year. That doesn't seem like grounds for claiming systemic change, particularly not for women at all levels of the economic ladder and of all races and ethnicities."

And there's another caveat to the Forbes list: Most of the wealthiest women in the world are not self-made businesswomen, but actually heiresses who rely on vast family wealth to maintain their spots on the billionaires list. For instance, France's Liliane Bettencourt, the wealthiest woman in the world with a net worth of $39.5 billion, is heir to the L'Oreal cosmetics fortune. Similarly, the No. 2 spot belongs to Alice Walton ($33.8 billion), the only daughter of Sam Walton, who founded Wal-Mart.

The number of self-made women billionaires, however, is still on the rise, with a record 56 self-made women claiming a net worth in the billions, compared to 42 women last year. This was also the first year in the history of the list that these self-made billionaires broke a collective net worth of $100 billion, clocking in at an impressive $129.1 billion. But while that's great news for these particular women, Hurst doubts that their example will cause a dramatic or positive change for most working women.

"It is well-known that income inequality has become severe – and is rising – in the United States," she says. "Even if more women are able to climb into the rarefied world of the super-rich, this will likely not positively impact the fortunes of the vast majority of women."

A closer look at the Forbes list also reveals an uneven global representation. For instance, most of the new self-made women billionaires this year come from Asia.

"The number of Asian women billionaires is increasing because the number of Asian billionaires is increasing, and because building wealth in Asia often is about family power – more so than in many parts of the world," Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, tells the Monitor in an email. "An Asian woman from a powerful family has a good chance of leveraging that power into a billion dollars, or of inheriting it. Family ties matter in the US and Europe, but not as much."

But it's hardly a sign of "systematic chance in large corporations," Professor Gordon adds.

According to the United Nations, women are paid an average of 23 percent less than men around the world. Some of that is because women are concentrated in different jobs than men, like teaching or health care, which often go underpaid in many parts of the world. But even for men and women in the same fields, women still tend to have lower pay than their male counterparts, partly because of gender bias, lack of equal pay legislation, and other factors, says Hurst.

Partly to blame, she adds, are women's disproportionate shares of parenting and household responsibilities, and workplaces "still mostly designed around the patterns and needs of traditional families." One potential remedy, she says: paid leave, and top-notch early childhood education.

Programs like these "would enable women to maintain employment during their children's early years without losing as much wealth as they do when they have to take unpaid leave, slow down their careers, take jobs that are less well-paid but have more flexibility, or leave the workforce altogether."