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Tue Jan 22, 2013, 09:18 AM

The 99 percent matriarchy

One of the great transformations of our age is the liberation of women. Within the development community it has become conventional wisdom to emphasize the empowerment of girls and women, partly because of the multiplier effect educated women have on their families and communities. In the developed Western economies, the rise of women has picked up such pace that some have begun to declare, as Hannah Rosin did in her acclaimed 2012 book of the same title, "The End of Men."

But these celebrations—and occasional lamentations—of the ascendancy of girl power ignore one important global constant. Women are making tremendous headway in the middle class around the world, but at the summit of wealth and economic power, they are almost entirely absent. Robin Rogers, a sociologist at the City University of New York, says that women account for just 2 percent of the world's self-made billionaires, and that half of these female tycoons are Chinese. The middle class may be becoming a matriarchy, but the plutocracy is as patriarchal as ever.

The growing economic power of women in the middle class that writers like Rosin have been documenting is a clear and consequential shift. The year 2009 was a watershed for the American workplace — it was the first time since data was collected that women outnumbered men on the country's payrolls. In 2010, about four in 10 working wives were the chief breadwinners for their families. Similar trends are reshaping the workplace and family life in the developed Western and Asian economies, and are starting to take hold in many middle-income countries, too.

In the younger generations, the shift is even more pronounced. Girls are outpacing boys in high school and they are more likely to graduate from college: In the United States, more women than men between 25 and 34 years old have a college degree. Even graduate schools, particularly law school, are starting to turn pink. At a time when the economic rewards of higher education are greater than ever, this female academic prowess makes it easy to imagine that in the coming decades the percentage of women who are the chief breadwinner in the family will increase further. But while women are increasingly dominant in the middle class in the rich world, they aren't scaling the summit of economic power. Consider the 2012 Forbes billionaire list. Just 104 of the 1,226 billionaires are women. Subtract wives, daughters and widows of rich men and you are left with a fraction of that already small number.


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