Yesterday BRW magazine released its annual Young Rich list of Australia’s most successful entrepreneurs aged under 40. Topping the list for the second year in a row, and becoming its first billionaire, is Queensland mining magnate Nathan Tinkler, 35.

But what immediately struck me is that this list of 100 contains only eight women. None is in the top 20. Australia’s richest female entrepreneur under 40, EQ Hire Equipment’s Prue Eales, only ranks 40th with $50 million – and that’s a joint ranking with her husband Laurence Eales.

It’s important to emphasise that this list doesn’t just measure wealth for age; it explicitly correlates youth and entrepreneurship. Thus, it excludes wealthy young people who are scions of family empires and emerging corporate leaders.

Let’s see how women are doing in BRW’s other major wealth lists. According to its Rich 200, Australia’s richest person right now is a woman – Gina Rinehart, whose fortune is $10.3 billion. However Rinehart, 59, whose wealth is inherited, is one of only 15 women on the list, and the only one of Australia’s five richest women who is rich in her own right; like Prue Eales, the other four women hold their wealth jointly.

Meanwhile in this year’s Executive Rich list (which focuses on the hands-on operators of Australia’s top 500 companies), Harvey Norman’s Katie Page ranks 66th, Gail Kelly of Westpac is 91st, Paladin Energy’s Gillian Swaby is 116th and Karen Moses of Origin Energy comes in at 185th. They are the only four women out of 200 executives.

This all adds up to a pretty damning indictment of how remote Australian women are from the logic of capital that runs the world. (Sorry, Beyoncé.)

Largely, it’s institutional barriers standing between Australian women and their riches. Last year’s Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) census revealed that women hold only 8.4% of board directorships, 8% of key executive roles and 4.1% of line manager roles (such as chief operating officer or chief financial officer) in the top 200 ASX companies.

And even if they get a top job, they are paid less than men. Throughout the Australian workforce generally, the average gender pay gap is 17.2%. To close this gap, women would have to work an extra 63 days to match what men earn.

Entrepreneurship is actually a better way for a woman to amass wealth if she doesn’t already come from money, because she can circumvent many of these barriers. Successful start-ups can be run from home, grown from limited initial capital, and many of the most profitable are in service and retail industries, in which women are traditionally over-represented.

However, other, more subtle barriers still exist. As My Coffee Shop’s Carmelina Pascoe told Smart Company last year, “There is a ‘glass wall’ (rather than a glass ceiling) that you hit during growth, where people expect to be dealing with a man rather than the woman.”

It feels embarrassingly obvious to say this, but female entrepreneurs are also unlikely to amass their greatest wealth before they hit 40 because of the additional social pressure of childbearing.

I’m not necessarily arguing that they’re spending more time raising kids than raising capital. But they must battle the widespread perception that young women are not secure investment prospects because they might neglect the business to start a family.

On the other side of the same coin, female entrepreneurs who are parents are often belittled as ‘mumpreneurs’ – essentially, hobbyists who exclusively market to and network with each other rather than operating in the ‘real’ business world.

But as I’ve argued elsewhere, we should avoid responding to gender imbalance by asking, “How can we get more women on these lists?” Rather, we should question BRW’s alarming celebration of wealth as a marker of personal achievement, and challenge the status quo that it concentrates so repulsively in the hands of so few.

It’s fantastic that we live in a country where Nathan Tinkler can move from humble sparkie to Australia’s youngest billionaire by exploiting our natural resources. But should we be celebrating a person who seems to lack any generosity or compassion for others?

Notoriously, last year Tinkler called Sunday Age journalist Tom Reilly a “f–king deadbeat” for daring to request a comment about a recent business acquisition. “People like me don’t bother with f–king you,” he said. “You climb out of your bed every morning for your pathetic hundred grand a year, good luck.”

What if women don’t possess as much outright wealth as men, but wield other sources of power – for example, in the media, or in top bureaucratic roles? And what if they are more generous with the resources they do control, serving on boards and being active philanthropists?

Globally, rich people give away between 3 and 11% of their assets, but Australia’s rich donate less than 2%. Meanwhile, the World Giving Index ranks ordinary Australians the most generous in the world for charitable donations and volunteering.

Dick Smith has been persistently vocal on this “selfish” behaviour, telling the Sydney Morning Herald: “We’ve got to get it so it is an obligation if you’re wealthy to become a philanthropist. Otherwise we don’t want you in this country – rack off.”

Interestingly, Australia’s female philanthropists are becoming more interested in funding women’s causes. Last year, American heiress Helen LaKelly Hunt visited Australia to help convince rich women to put their money to feminist use, rather than using it to prop up status-quo institutions.

Money is a feminist issue. Rather than simply encouraging more women to accumulate wealth, feminism should challenge the privilege that accompanies it, and champion alternative ways to gain proximity to power.

Peter Fray

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