Women are running for political office in record numbers this year. They are challenging the sexual status quo from Hollywood to corporate offices, pursuing power as seldom before. But there is one barrier yet to be toppled: Money. Of 2,043 billionaires on the latest annual Forbes tally, 227 are women; most of that small group inherited their wealth. A record number of women were donors and political bundlers for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, but men still gave the most money and were the largest individual donors. Parents spent more time talking about money with boys than with girls last year, according to a survey conducted by T. Rowe Price.
For all the heady anticipation about women winning midterm elections and female voters demanding change, it’s the influence that comes with money that endures. “Political power is ephemeral,” said Alicia Glen, New York’s deputy mayor for housing and economic development, who was a managing director at Goldman Sachs. “People can just wait you out. But if you’re the richest person on the planet, there’s no waiting you out.”
Yet many women, those who grew up wealthy and those who did not, have long been steered away from the unapologetic drive for wealth.
It’s bound up with the way girls are often schooled to place the needs of others above their own, to repress or deny outward signs of ambition. Even as women have pushed into once-male bastions in business, many still feel the sting of professional and personal backlash if they are perceived as too aggressive.
“Girls as they are growing up are not socialized to feel that it’s O.K. for them to have ambition about creating wealth, not the way it is for little boys,” said Mariko Chang, the author of “Shortchanged,” a study of the wealth gap between men and women. “They’re encouraged to take on roles that let them take care of other people.”
Joline Godfrey, author of the book “Raising Financially Fit Kids” and a California-based education consultant, coaches families on how to avoid sending a dismissive message to girls about money. For example, if a girl proposes a lemonade stand, take her seriously and help her talk about a business plan, rather than pronouncing her cute. Parents are often more likely to reward boys for accomplishments or risk-taking while urging girls to be careful.
Families want help navigating this terrain, yet old attitudes die hard. Ms. Godfrey recalls a talk she gave a few years ago to a group of very wealthy families, posing questions about what they most wanted for their sons and then their daughters, including financial success, good careers and personal happiness. For their sons, the families’ answers ranged widely among these attributes. But virtually every family chose personal happiness for their daughters above anything else.
Indeed, the most bracing scene in “Equity,” a film about women on Wall Street that opened during the 2016 presidential campaign, is when the dealmaker Naomi Bishop (played by Anna Gunn) states baldly, “I like money.”
It was a jaw-dropping moment because such portrayals are so rare — and that void is one that Sarah Megan Thomas, one of the film’s writers, stars and producers, set out to fill, with financial backing from a group of Wall Street women. “We don’t show strong women liking money on screen,” she said.
Irene Chang Britt spent 30 years at Fortune 500 companies, six of them in the executive suite. She trained as an anthropologist, but said her mother also pushed her to get an M.B.A. She ascended the corporate ladder by proving she could increase profits in the divisions she led, so money was a direct measure of her achievements. “Money motivated me, for sure,” she said. “But for me it’s more about accomplishment and power than money.”
At the same time, Ms. Britt says she thinks women are often discouraged from openly promoting themselves and the money they make or generate in the way men are allowed to do.
“Money is a form of praise, and you’re deflecting that praise,” she said, summarizing the message she thinks women often receive. “It’s not ladylike, and you won’t attract a guy.”
Even when women do make substantial money, they have often chosen to exercise the influence it brings differently from men.
From her perches both in investment banking and city government, Ms. Glen has watched men relish the rewards money brings. She pointed out that men outnumber women on many of the most powerful boards of New York, including its major hospitals, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Real Estate Board of New York. “I’m on the board of Mount Sinai, so I can get your cousin in to see the best doctor,” she said, describing the currency of board membership for some wealthy men.
Many women I interviewed said they viewed money as a means to help others rather than to increase their own profile. Those attitudes, admirable as they may be, have helped fuel a power gap that separates men and women.
Of course, many recoil at the idea that women should pursue money and clout just the way men do. That flies in the face of increasing political anger about inequality. There’s a longstanding rift in the women’s movement and beyond: Does the path to power require acting more like men, or can women wield influence in ways that are different but just as effective?
“There are men for whom there is no amount of money that is enough,” Ms. Godfrey said. “The quest of more, bigger, better has taken this planet to a place of unsustainability. It seems to me that women are making different choices. And those choices may be healthier for all of us.”
Diana L. Taylor has spent years on Wall Street, in state government, and on corporate and philanthropic boards. That experience, as well as being the partner of a former New York City mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, has given her a close-up view of both political power and great wealth.
When she graduated from Dartmouth in 1977, she said, her father refused to pay for business school. “He said, ‘Why bother?’ ” she recalled. “‘You’ll just get married and have kids.’” So she paid her own way through business school, won over her father and landed in investment banking. She left one firm to start another one in the late 1980s when she learned she was being paid less than men at her level.
Women have long been active philanthropists, but Ms. Taylor observed that women tend to give to smaller organizations that might not offer the flashiest rewards for donors.
Research suggests that men continue to set priorities and reap more direct power from philanthropy than women. Ms. Chang found that women were more likely to use their wealth to help other people, and men to advance their influence, such as naming a building or donating to a college. “Women have not been socialized to brag and have their names on things,” said Debra Mesch, director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University.
However they exercise it, more women appear to be awakening to the power wealth can endow.
Male political donors like Tom Steyer on the left and the Koch brothers on the right have been able to force issues they champion onto their parties’ agendas. There are far fewer women with the kind of wealth that buys impact on that scale — although more are mobilizing. Among those women is Rebekah Mercer, who has deployed her family’s fortune to press the causes she wants Republicans to embrace.
In 2017, nearly four times the number of women donated to political campaigns than in the two years of the previous midterm cycle, according to preliminary results analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics. More women have given money to congressional campaigns in this cycle than men, primarily to Democratic candidates, according to a Crowdpac analysis.
Even if they are ambivalent about the pursuit of money, women are increasingly fed up with persistent pay gaps and are demanding that they be paid as much as men for the same work. Carrie Gracie shamed the BBC by quitting when she saw the gap between her salary as China editor and those of men she considered peers. Out of the limelight, many women are sharing details of their salaries, breaching taboos against honest talk about money.
Sarah Elliott is a 33-year-old advertising sales executive in an entertainment and gaming company who looks to Ms. Britt, the former Fortune 500 executive, as a mentor. She said when she entered advertising as a research analyst, she was following her interests rather than focusing on her salary. About five years in, she realized that she was providing research to help close deals but was earning far less than her colleagues in sales. “Why am I not getting the financial benefits of all this work?” she recalled thinking. “In sales, the harder you work the more money you make.”
Now she belongs to a network of women her age who exchange salary information. She is investing in Plum Alley, one of several networks of women-owned businesses that are attracting female investors. And this is the first year she’s considered political donations, inspired by the number of women running for office.
Ms. Glen, the deputy mayor, said the young women in business she mentors are growing impatient with the slow, halting climb to the top of corporate America and are choosing entrepreneurship instead. “Young women aren’t looking toward Wall Street but toward billion-dollar I.P.O.s,” she said. But not, at least for now, her own daughter. Set against women’s growing boldness about money is a resentment over inequality and corporate influence. Ms. Glen’s daughter, a college senior, told her mother that she had no intention of working at a for-profit company. “I get why she feels that way,” Ms. Glen said. “But I want to make sure she’s not disempowering herself. I want her to be a badass.”
In 2016, many women who believed they were on the cusp of electing the first female president took their daughters with them to the polls. Outrage on the left at Donald J. Trump’s election drove many women toward political activism and to run for office themselves. Perhaps their daughters may grow up not just to aspire to be candidates — but to bankroll them.