In 1984 a poultry farmer called Sun Guiying became the first Chinese peasant to buy her own car. I still recall the government-authorised photos of her, standing with her family in front of their shiny Toyota. Now we can look back on her beaming smile as a watershed in global economic history. Recently Forbes reported that Chinese women are queuing up to buy luxury sports cars. A third of China’s millionaires are women, and there are now three times as many Maseratis and twice as many Ferraris sold in that country as in the west. Hold that thought.
In a interview with Caitlin Moran published in Slate magazine today, we were told that only one percent of the world’s wealth is owned by women. It’s a familiar claim. It can also be found in the introduction to Kat Banyard’s Equality Illusion, and last year, in a sobering open letter to mark the recent International Women’s Day, singer Annie Lennox, a UN Ambassador for Women, reminded us of the full version: “women do two-thirds of the world’s work for a paltry 10 per cent of the world’s income, and own just 1% of the means of production.”
I use the word ‘reminded’ with care, because we’ve heard this claim before. It’s been used on previous International Women’s Days, and is regularly quoted by the UN, the World Bank, or anyone who takes their information from that source. Lennox’s letter was printed in dozens of leading national newspapers around the world, and according to Google on the relevant day it was re-published on the internet 10,800 times in 24 hours. So it must be true. Must it not?
Perhaps it was once. The claim goes back to before the first days of the internet, before the earliest of online archives. Indeed you can trace right back to the programme notes for the UN Women’s Conference, Copenhagen, 1980, which references a 1978 International Labour Organisation paper which was no more specific than “according to some estimates…”
Suppose it was once true, back in the mid to late seventies. Could it be that with everything that has happened in the past 30+ years, the massive expansion of the female workforce in the developed world, the economic growth of China and India, the economic liberalisation of Russia and Eastern Europe, all this has made precisely zero difference to the global average wealth of women? It seems unlikely to say the least.
The American sociologist Philip N Cohen has been tracking what he calls the “1%” meme for years. He has dedicated considerable effort to establishing whether the claim could be true.
When we think of the number of dirt-poor, destitute women in the world, you might think it seems credible. But wait. The vast bulk of the world’s wealth is concentrated in a tiny number of hands; hands that include the likes of Lillian Bettancourt, Elizabeth Windsor and Oprah Winfrey. Indeed, Cohen has calculated that just one small specific group – single American women – hold between 1.6% and 3% of the world’s wealth between them. So even if the entire net wealth of the world’s married women, all European, Chinese and Japanese women, every other woman on the planet were precisely zero, the figure still could not be true.
When the World Bank launched its World Development report last Autumn, President Robert Zoellick used the stat in his speech, even though it does not appear in the report itself. Nonetheless the Wall Street Journal and others reported it as if it did.
If the world’s most powerful economic body won’t kill off this zombie, who will? There is plenty of valid, incontrovertible evidence as to the economic, social and political repression of many women in many parts of the world. Depending upon 30 year old factoids of dubious provenance doesn’t make the case for global women’s liberation, it casts a cloud of doubt over even the most reliable statistics. It also traps the debate like a fly in amber, oblivious to genuine progress, change and achievement. Meanwhile the achievements and stories of so many women around the world, those who have followed in the footsteps of Sun Guiying, are erased from the picture, with little remaining but the fading memory of a smile.