How Female Economic Power Improves Society

As women gain more financial clout, their spending patterns direct more money toward education, health and community.

With greater educational opportunities yielding better jobs for women than ever before, female spending power has become a central engine of the economy—and is changing the world for the better.


While male incomes have remained rather flat over the past 30 years, adjusted for inflation, women’s incomes have grown exponentially. Much of this increase, of course, is a factor of women's participation in the workforce, generally, but it nonetheless has large implications for the economy. A 2007 Goldman Sachs report says: "Closing the gap between male and female employment rates would have huge implications for the global economy, boosting U.S. GDP by as much as 9%, Eurozone GDP by 13%, and Japanese GDP by 16%."

The inverse is also true. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific Countries reports that restricting job opportunities for women costs the region between $42 billion and $46 billion a year in GDP growth. A gap of 30 to 40 percentage points between men's and women's workforce participation rates is common in the Asia-Pacific region. The gap in women's education limits their participation in the workforce, causing a further loss of $16 billion to $30 billion to the region’s economic output.

Gaps in the workforce aside, women have become the major drivers of the consumption economy in the United States, says Maddy Dychtwald, author of "Influence: How Women’s Soaring Economic Power Will Transform Our World for the Better." She says that women today influence 83% of all dollars spent on consumer purchases, including:

  • 62% of all new cars
  • 92% of vacations
  • 90% of food
  • 55% of consumer electronics
  • 93% of health-care spending
  • 94% of home furnishings
  • And as women have gained more economic might, they have also wielded this power differently than men, says Dychtwald. In developing countries, it has been documented that women reinvest 90% of their income in their families and communities, compared to men who reinvest only 30% to 40% of their income—with the remainder going to extravagances such as alcohol and cigarettes, says Dychtwald. “Even in the United States, what we notice is that women have a tendency to spend their money more on their family and more on education, on health and on things that really make life for families a little bit better.”

    For Dychtwald, this increased purchasing power has its roots in trends begun by the Baby Boomer generation—and especially in the increase in education of women. “Today, for the very first time, we see a critical mass of women entering the workforce with that education and gaining earning power,” she tells Big Think. The change also has its origins in an evolving economic base. “We went from an economy that was industrial, manufacturing-based, where brawn really defined your role and gave you the power to really earn income, to a more knowledge-based economy, where the skill set was more education-based,” she says. “So women got that education at exactly the right moment in history that allowed them success in the workplace.”

    Some marketers have begun to take note of women's purchasing might, says Dychtwald. Catering to female economic clout, Citigroup began a program called Women & Co. targeting female banking consumers. Yet others have been slow to respond, despite a spate of examples and books on the potential boon in advertising to women. The automobile industry, where women buy 62% of all new car purchases, is one example. "They are notorious for doing a horrible job of speaking out to women,” says Dychtwald. “If anything they give just kind of lip service or what we call 'pink marketing' to women.”

    As the U.S. economy realigns for the 21st Century, this increased economic power among women will be central to whether gains made in the twentieth century by the middle class, from political preferences to social trends, are sustained or cede ground.  "The only reason we have anyone in the middle class today is really because of women in the workforce,” says Dychtwald. “Instead of just having one income to be middle class, today we need two and that is a huge transformation that puts a strain on all kinds of families," she says. "That is the direction we’re going to be moving. We need to be aware of it and we need to really recognize the contribution that women have made to families."

    More Resources

     —Goldman Sachs Global Economics Paper 164, "Women Hold Up Half the Sky"

    —Ernst & Young, "Groundbreakers: Using the strength of women to rebuild the world economy."

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    Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

    A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

    Rethinking humanity's origin story

    The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

    David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

    The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

    Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

    He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

    It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

    "Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

    Migrating out of Africa

    In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

    Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

    The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

    The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

    Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

    Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

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    Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

    Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.