Womenomics: Unlocking Women’s Not-So-Hidden Economic Potential

womenomicsIn the perpetual quest to improve economic growth and prosperity, leaders often ask questions such as: “How can we attract business to our shores?” “What can we do to raise export levels?” “How can we innovate to compete in the global economy?” While these questions are crucial to economic success, many developing and even some developed nations overlook an abundant and easily accessible driver of economic growth that makes up around half the world’s population: women.

Utilizing women to their full potential can play a crucial role in raising productivity and economic output. According to the World Bank’s 2012 World Development Report, women now represent 40 percent of the global labor force and more than half of the world’s university students. It seems obvious that allocating women’s skills and talents in activities that make the best use of those abilities will result in tangible economic benefits. In 1950, only one-third of American women of working age had a paid job. Yet today, US girls now do better at school than boys, more women are getting university degrees than men are, and females run some of the world’s best companies, such as PepsiCo, Archer Daniels Midland and W.L. Gore. Furthermore, a study by McKinsey found that when women went from holding 37 percent of all US jobs to nearly 48 percent over the past 40 years, the productivity gains associated with this modest increase accounted for approximately one-quarter of our current GDP. Undoubtedly, unlocking the economic potential of women has contributed to the sustained economic growth of the US over the last decades.

However, economies where women are not well integrated in the work force face significant disadvantages. This loss of productivity and economic duress is illustrated in the case of Japan, which has faced persistent economic stagnation. According to Kathy Matsui, chief Japan equity strategist and co-head of Asia Investment Research at Goldman Sachs, “Narrowing the gap between male and female employment rates, through increased participation of women in the labor market, could help Japan’s economy grow.” For example, 70% of Japanese women leave the workforce after their first child, and only 65% of college-educated women are employed. Barriers to higher female employment include insufficient childcare and nursing care support, tax distortions, and inadequate focus of the private and public sectors on diversity. It is no coincidence that Japan’s economy has struggled as women continue to be systemically underused.

Better enabling women to enter the labor force should be a key priority in nations looking to increase economic growth. The Economist reports that the increase in employment of women in developed countries during the past decade has added more to global growth than even the economic emergence of China. Therefore, it would serve countries well to eliminate obstacles that prevent women from entering the workforce and create programs that encourage the participation of women in the economy.

Posted by: Matthew Goldberg

Sources: The Economist, Goldman Sachs, World Bank, McKinsey, AARP International

Photo Credit: Woman working courtesy of flickr user SMU Central University Libraries