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Does changing the gender of top earners really help gender gap discussions?

(EDITORIAL) In a recent Forbes Brazil article, an interesting new spin on the gender-gap issue was presented, but was it helpful or harmful?

gender gap zuckerberg

The change up

Feast your eyes on ‘Marcia Zuckerberg’, ‘Billie Gates’, and ‘Carla Slim’.

They are the gender-bending female doppelgängers of— you guessed it—Mark Z., Bill Gates, and Carlos Slim.

Ad Campaign Gone Wild

Featured on the latest Forbes Brazil issue of “The World’s Richest Women,” the prints created by artist Ogilvy Brazil provocatively compares the wealth of imagined female billionaires with their real world male counterparts.

The purpose, we are told, is to highlight what the top billionaires’ club would look like through the lens of equal pay.

This may sound like an innovative way to raise awareness, as many on social media suggested by tweeting it. But the ads are not only bizarrely cheeky; they distract our focus from the issues that matter.

What was the editor thinking?

That’s probably easy to answer. Sales.

Gender-gap is an easy green light for editors. Publish it, and you seize a progressive agenda. Add a provocative title and you’ll be trending in no time, the sweet spot for digital success.

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Pay gap has been covered expansively— from medicine, tech, education, to conference speakers. Even College degrees that exacerbate gender based pay gap received spotlight.

Eventually editors hunt for new angles. Brainstorming ensues. Sometimes the upshot is investigative pieces that become journalistic gold standards.

Then there is the realm of the nutty provocateur. Forbes’s eerie print campaign is an excellent example of this.

What’s so groundbreaking?

The new Forbes Billionaire list has a “record” number of women, apparently. That is a good thing, we are told.

What they don’t tell you is that it is only a “record” because historically women participation has been so marginalized.

Of the 2043 world billionaires, only 227 are women. Some record!

56 self-made women billionaires made the list, 25 per cent of all female billionaires. Fifteen are complete newcomers, and all but one are from Asia. That’s progress of sorts.

However, the picture as a whole still speaks of an unmistakable gender gap. Consider figures from developing countries, where the number of billionaires is exploding. Since 2010, India has added a billionaire every 33 days! Yet, most of them are men. Of the 101 Indian billionaires listed by the 2017 Forbes list, only four are women. Just one, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, is self-made.

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Feminism cannot unite billionaires with gender pay-gap campaign.

The Forbes ad campaign conveniently conflates two incompatible issues.

First, wealth gap is NOT pay gap, since billionaires do not have a fixed salary. Sure, the billionaires’ list underscores that amongst the top .1 per cent, men still create lion’s portion of the world’s wealth. Here is one example: the richest male self-made billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffet together have more wealth than all 56 self-made female billionaires put together!

Nevertheless, factors causing gender wealth gap are not the ones that are also exacerbating gender pay-gap.

Secondly, those women who voice their support for equal pay are fighting against wealth concentration in the hands of a few—men or women. Gender cannot override the conflicting interests between a billionaire heiress and a lunch lady.

And here’s another point of contention that is often overlooked.

A big hindrance to eliminating gender pay gap is the difficulty of raising wages.

Last month when American Airlines announced pay increases for their flight attendants, the company shares immediately fell 8 per cent. Wal-Mart suffered a similar fate last year, after announcing higher wages for their employees.

“There’s always this tension between what companies would want for the long term and what Wall Street wants for the short term,” said John Cotton, MBA professor at Marquette University.

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In other words, a female billionaire (just like her male counterparts) worried about her short-term stock value is by definition against equal pay for the overworked flight hostess and the Wal-Mart bagging lady.

Not just wrong, but in bad taste

In an era of rapid wealth concentration in the hands of a few, the pitfalls of inequality are plain to see. The gender pay gap infuriates by numbers alone. To toil under it is numbingly humiliating. Working mothers, especially single mothers, are acutely aware of this.

That is why so many of them strongly relate to Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, or with Jennifer Lawrence’s Lenny article “Why do I Make Less than my Male Co-stars?”

Gender bending Mark to Marcia, or putting blush on Bill Gate’s face doesn’t highlight that problem in any new meaningful way, nor does it offer solutions. To the contrary, Forbes’s ad makes light of a historical injustice for the sake of catchy PR tactic.

Journalistically speaking, that is not praiseworthy.


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Barnil is a Staff Writer at The American Genius. With a Master's Degree in International Relations, Barnil is a Research Assistant at UT, Austin. When he hikes, he falls. When he swims, he sinks. When he drives, others honk. But when he writes, people read.

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