Below The Topline Women’s Growing Economic Power

Below The Topline Women’s Growing Economic Power

women's economic power

Doug Anderson, SVP, Research & Development, The Nielsen Company

SUMMARY: Throughout the world, the economic power of women is growing. As education levels are rising, incomes are following. Broadly defined, the global middle class will at least double in the next two decades and much of that growth will be spurred by two-income families as women enter the labor force in greater numbers throughout the less-developed world. While women in the more developed world will continue to find opportunities, developing nations will have the largest impact.

Over the next five years, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) estimates that the global incomes of women will grow from $13 trillion to $18 trillion. That incremental $5 trillion is nearly twice the growth in GDP expected from China ($4.4 to $6.6 trillion) and India ($1.2 trillion to $1.8 trillion) combined. Globally, women are the biggest emerging market ever seen. Overall, men earn nearly twice as much money as women today, but that gap will shrink as more women enter the labor force and at higher wages than ever before. The vast majority of new income growth over the next ten years will come from women.

Women influence 65% of the world’s annual consumer spending…

In control

According to BCG estimates, women control or substantially influence 65% of the world’s annual consumer spending—about $12 trillion. As today’s younger women enter the labor force at higher rates, they bring with them higher levels of education than any generation of women who have come before them. As they advance in their careers, their share of spending will grow, making women an even more important target for consumer marketers.

Global surveys of women, however, show that women feel vastly underserved by marketers. “Despite the remarkable strides in market power and social position that they have made in the past century, they still appear undervalued in the marketplace and underestimated in the workplace. Few companies have responded to their need for time-saving solutions or for products and services designed specifically for them”, says Michael Silverstein and Kate Sayre in the Harvard Business Review. In many cases, rather than truly listening to their female consumers, marketers have opted for the “make it pink” strategy.

By 2028, the average woman is projected to earn more than the average man in the U.S…

Future income states

The United States provides a good case study for how the growing influence of women will eventually play out across many countries in the developing world in the near future. Almost all income growth in the U.S. over the past 15 or 20 years has come from women—while men have seen flat or even declining incomes. By around 2028, the average woman is projected to earn more than the average man in the U.S. A study reported in the Gotham Gazette shows that in some large markets, younger women are already out-earning younger men.

The average wages of 20-29 year-old women are higher than same age men in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Dallas and Minneapolis. In New York, young women earn 17% more than young men and 20% more in Dallas. In 1970, New York women in their 20s made about $7,000 less per year than men in their 20s. This gap had closed to parity by 2000 and today, young women make $5,000 more on average. As women age and grow in their careers, the overall gap between women and men will continue to shrink.

Career paths

Although there is still much to be done, women have made many other strides in the U.S. For the decade ending 2007, women increased their share of many prominent career positions: lawyers from 25% to 30%, physicians from 22% to 29%, and university faculty from 32% to 39%. Women’s participation in the military during the same period also grew from 12% to 14%. While these shares are far from parity and women are still significantly underrepresented in senior jobs—as the chart below indicates—there is continued progress.


Growth in incomes and career levels in companies is driven at least partly by education and the continuing removal of gender-based barriers to employment. Globally, half of all college students are now women. And in the U.S. and in the European Union, the majority are women (57% in the U.S., 55% in the E.U.).

Literacy rates for women overall lag those of men…

Fundamental right

Literacy rates for women overall lag those of men across much of the less-developed world by 15–30 points. However, younger women have much higher rates than all women as shown in the chart below. As literacy rates have continued to improve for women across the board, the gap between younger women and younger men is in the single digits across almost all countries. For many developing countries, enrollment at the primary and secondary school levels is nearly equal for girls and boys. The gap at university level is still larger, but should continue to shrink as today’s young children grow older and are better prepared for university when they leave secondary school.


Changes in influence and spending

The battle for equality in the labor force for women is far from over, and a few years of a repressive régime can undo decades of progress, as can be witnessed now in some parts of the less-developed world. However, even small gains in education and incomes can have significant impacts on the marketplace for consumer products. As the incomes of women grow, so does the influence in how families allocate spending. And the services and products that women choose to purchase are substantially different than those purchased by households where the woman has less economic impact.

Women’s decision making power varies based on her share of total household earnings…

A number of studies in the more developed world have shown that women’s decision making power within a household varies based on her share of total household earnings, in particular her lifetime earnings. Women are more likely to purchase for the household and for the children, including food, healthcare, clothing, education, and personal care products. In households where men dominate the spending decisions, much higher shares are spent on alcohol, tobacco, and high status consumer goods. As women’s share of assets increases, the share of the family budget spent on alcohol, tobacco, and recreation tends to fall. The table below shows who controls spending for certain categories in the United Kingdom.


Increases in income in a family, whether coming from a man or a woman, tend to help the children, but the benefits are greater when a larger share of the increase comes from women. Children tend to enter school at an earlier age, especially girls. Nutrition improves and access to, and the quality of, healthcare increases. Savings rates also increase. All of this serves to better prepare the next generation, which reinforces economic growth.

In the developing world, Goldman Sachs’ The Power of the Purse: Gender Equality and Middle-Class Spending outlines a number of key categories that will see incremental growth from increases in spending autonomy for women—growth beyond what would be expected just given the size of their income increase. These include food (particularly higher quality and protein intensive foods), healthcare, financial products, education, childcare and consumer durables. As spending grows in these areas, growth in other categories—such as alcohol and tobacco—will be negatively impacted. Marketers who listen to their female consumers and create products that really meet their needs within these key categories will be able to reap substantial rewards.


  • The Real Emerging Market by Rana Foroohar and Susan H. Greenberg in Newsweek September 12, 2009
  • The Female Economy by Michael J. Silverstein and Kate Sayre (Boston Consulting Group) in the Harvard Business Review September 2009
  • No Quick Riches for New York’s Twentysomethings by Andrew Beveridge in the Gotham Gazette June 19, 2007
  • The Power of the Purse: Gender Equality and Middle-Class Spending by Sandra Lawson and Douglas B. Gilman, The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., August 5, 2009