So the Sunday Times Rich List has been rolled out for 2013. Every year since 1989, the paper has published this annual parade of plutocrats while the rest of us look on in amazement/ disgust/ envy/ admiration – delete according to preference!
The number of women on the list has steadily increased in recent years, and there are more than ever in this year’s ranking: 118, ten more than last year’s list and that was a record figure even then! According to The New Statesman, the top 100 of those women are worth a combined £55.287 billion, or about one fifth of the total wealth squirreled away by the 100 richest people in Britain.
Good news? A sign that is becoming a more equal society? Not for journalist Sophie McBain who claims in her article that the great majority of women on this year’s rich list “owe their fortunes to their parents or husbands”.
According to McBain, if you take out those women on the list who made their wealth through inheritance or (horrors!) divorce, the first remaining female you come to Russian businesswoman Elena Baturina, who is only the 12th richest woman in the UK, placing in 122nd place on the overall list.
Next comes a rather more familiar name to most of us: Joanne ‘JK’ Rowling, author of the immensely successful Harry Potter series of fantasy novels. Royalties from her books have made her Britain’s 20th wealthiest woman, and taken her to number 156 in the overall list.
The implication of the New Statesman’s article is clear: those women in the list who owe their fortunes to family or divorce don’t really deserve it. They haven’t worked hard like Joanne or Elena, they aren’t aspirational role models for other woman and they have only lucked their way to the top.
I quote: “despite the records broken, the list of Britain’s wealthiest women only illustrates that there’s plenty of room for progress.”
That is such a negative take on the situation and in my view completely undervalues the contributions made by those women whose fortunes are linked to their marriages, whether current ones or past.
Under English law, marriage is a partnership, one to which each partner contributes, although usually in different ways. Most successful individuals only achieve what they do thanks to the formidable support of their partners and families. In some cases, spouses of the wealthy have made genuine personal and professional sacrifices.
If such marriages end, family judges strive to make sure each partner has their contributions fully and fairly recognised in the divorce settlement. That goes for the wealthy as much as it does for more ordinary husbands and wives.
Huge divorce settlements amongst millionaires and billionaires may sometimes seem over the top, but in reality they are a firm indication of the equality of treatment between men and women, bread winner and home maker enshrined in English law. On dissolution of a marriage a husband and wife in England will each receive their fair share of the partnership’s assets, even if in extreme cases those assets are worth millions. Or billions.