Rich Lists: An Unfair Footnote for Women?

More women than men are tagged “& family” on wealth lists, says Korn Ferry’s Evelyn Orr.

In this regular column, Evelyn Orr, vice president and chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute, shares her thoughts on the intersection of career, relationships, and gender.

Yesterday in the mail, I received a letter from my tax accountant announcing her retirement. My heart sank. Is it weird to be emotionally attached to your tax person? She has been helping my husband and me with our taxes for 20 years. I credit her as one of the de-stressors that keeps us married. On one occasion, when the IRS thought I owed them back taxes, she turned the tables and found miscategorized student income and that they actually owed me. I think the IRS has flagged my file as “don’t mess with this one.”

The one thing that bugs me at tax time is being listed as a spouse while my husband is listed as a taxpayer. If you’ve read my previous columns, you’ll know that I am the breadwinner and my husband is in a helping profession, undervalued in my opinion. In fact, with his status, I pay his portion of taxes out of my paycheck. Yet every year, I dutifully pull together our tax records and sign on the dotted line “Spouse.”

It doesn’t really matter, because my husband and I view ourselves as a household. All of our earnings go into the same joint accounts. But what if we were being considered for a “world’s richest person” list? Would he qualify, while I would be the tagalong? (Reality check: this would never actually happen.)

In Forbes’s 33rd annual World’s Billionaires Issue published in March 2019, only 11 out of the 100 richest people listed are women. Five of the 11 include the tag “& family.” Are the 89 men on the list not married? (No.) Are these men’s spouses not also wealthy?

And yet, on a recent work trip, I glanced at the cover of the airline magazine to find Melinda Gates with an article about how she “is using her fortune and her voice to work against gender inequality all over the world.” It is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, after all. Is there a reason why the wealth is considered joint when it’s a charitable foundation but only Bill’s on the Forbes list?

Divorce is another instance where wealth is considered joint assets of the couple (depending on the state, of course). Joint, that is, except for purposes of the rich lists. No one disputes, for example, that Jeff Bezos is the CEO of Amazon, but in his divorce settlement with MacKenzie Bezos, the couple and the government acknowledged joint ownership of the wealth created during the marriage. With the $38 billion settlement, MacKenzie, who hasn’t been on the Forbes list, will suddenly be an “instant billionaire,” ranked No. 21, just ahead of Jack Ma of Alibaba.

I propose a new list, a “World’s Richest Couples” list. Or the list could be amended to include “& family” after each person’s name as it appeared for 45% of women and 16% of men listed in the top 100. Because, like his-and-hers monogrammed towels, the idea that one person in a family is rich while the others are not is going out of fashion.