(Reuters) - 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.
Another window into how the gender divide widens at the very top comes from a landmark study Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz did of Harvard graduates. They found that in 2005, 8 percent of Harvard men earned more than $1 million, while just 2 percent of the women crossed that threshold.
One of the most important economic shifts of the past three decades has been an explosion of income inequality, driven in large part by a widening chasm between those at the very top and everyone else. An essential characteristic of these new plutocrats is that they are, as Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez has put it, "the working rich." They tend to have made their own fortunes, rather than inherited them, and their wealth today, however they describe it when talking to the taxman, tends to come from work and investment, rather than returns on assets. Not many of these meritocratic tycoons are women. "One of the ironies of the new boom in wealth is that, because more of it is self-made, there are fewer ultra-wealthy women," Rogers wrote in an email exchange with me. "Inheritance is a gender equalizer."
The Chinese exception — half of the women in the world who earn their way to a billion-dollar fortune are in the Middle Kingdom — is striking. One explanation is that China's family structure helps women get to the top. Close connections between generations mean grandmothers often help raise grandchildren, and Chinese mothers are subject to little of the social stigma their Western sisters face if they don't care for their own children. And the one-child policy means smaller families and thus less time spent nurturing them.
Another cause is political. As in the former Soviet Union and other communist societies, China has a state ideology that formally supports female participation in the labor force and the education of girls and young women, including in scientific and technical fields that are often seen in the West as masculine domains.
China's communist system may also encourage the rise of women billionaires for a less benign reason. In its state-capitalist model, political power trumps economic power (although the former can be a source of the latter). Women are still largely excluded from the senior leadership of the Communist Party of China, leaving the smartest and most ambitious ones free to choose the lower-status path to power of building business empires. The barred door to the politburo (only two of 25 members are female) may make it easier for Chinese women to become billionaires.
In the rest of the world, particularly the developed Western economies, the strong academic performance of young girls and women makes it tempting, at least for feminists, to imagine that gender parity in the billionaire's club is merely a matter of time. But Rogers believes that assumption overlooks the profound ways in which the world of the super-elite is deviating from the space inhabited by the middle class. Given the vast and growing gap, she says we should be careful about extrapolating broader social trends into the plutocracy. "Why would we expect the rise of women to trickle up, when over the past 30 years we have had rising inequality?" she says. "The distance between the top and the middle is growing. So, when it comes to women, why would we expect them to converge? They are different worlds. They are more likely to be parallel tracks."
(Chrystia Freeland is the editor of Thomson Reuters Digital. Prior, she was U.S. managing editor of the Financial Times. Before that, she was deputy editor, Financial Times, in London, editor of the FT's Weekend edition, editor of FT.com, U.K. News editor, Moscow bureau chief and Eastern Europe correspondent. From 1999 to 2001, Freeland served for two years as deputy editor of The Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper. Freeland began her career working as a stringer in Ukraine, writing for the FT, the Washington Post and the Economist.)
Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Prudence Crowther