The Female Economy

Women now drive the world economy.

Globally, they control about $20 trillion in annual consumer spending, and that figure could climb as high as $28 trillion in the next five years. Their $13 trillion in total yearly earnings could reach $18 trillion in the same period. In aggregate, women represent a growth market bigger than China and India combined—more than twice as big, in fact. Given those numbers, it would be foolish to ignore or underestimate the female consumer. And yet many companies do just that, even ones that are confident they have a winning strategy when it comes to women.

Consider Dell’s short-lived effort to market laptops specifically to women. The company fell into the classic “make it pink” mind-set with the May 2009 launch of its Della website. The site emphasized colors, computer accessories, and tips for counting calories and finding recipes. It created an uproar among women, who described it as “slick but disconcerting” and “condescending.” The blogosphere reacted quickly to the company’s “very special site for women.” Austin Modine of the online tech publication The Register responded acidly, “If you thought computer shopping was a gender-neutral affair, then you’ve obviously been struck down by an acute case of female hysteria. (Nine out of ten Victorian-age doctors agree.)” The New York Times said that Dell had to go to the “school of marketing hard knocks.” Within weeks of the launch, the company altered the site’s name and focus. “You spoke, we listened,” Dell told users. Kudos to Dell for correcting course promptly, but why didn’t its marketers catch the potentially awkward positioning before the launch?

Most companies have much to learn about selling to women. In 2008 the Boston Consulting Group fielded a comprehensive study of how women felt about their work and their lives, and how they were being served by businesses. It turned out there was lots of room for improvement. More than 12,000 women, from more than 40 geographies and a variety of income levels and walks of life, responded to our survey. They answered—often with disarming candor—120 questions about their education and finances, homes and possessions, jobs and careers, activities and interests, relationships, and hopes and fears, along with their shopping behavior and spending patterns in some three dozen categories of goods and services. (You can learn more about the survey and take an abridged version of it at http://www.womenspeakworldwide.com.) We also conducted hundreds of interviews and studied women working in 50 organizations in 13 fields of endeavor.

Here’s what we found, in brief: Women feel vastly underserved. Despite the remarkable strides in market power and social position that they have made in the past century, they still appear to be undervalued in the marketplace and underestimated in the workplace. They have too many demands on their time and constantly juggle conflicting priorities—work, home, and family. Few companies have responded to their need for time-saving solutions or for products and services designed specifically for them.

It’s still tough for women to find a pair of pants, buy a healthful meal, get financial advice without feeling patronized, or make the time to stay in shape. Although women control spending in most categories of consumer goods, too many businesses behave as if they had no say over purchasing decisions. Companies continue to offer them poorly conceived products and services and outdated marketing narratives that promote female stereotypes. Look at the automotive industry. Cars are designed for speed—not utility, which is what really matters to women. No SUV is built to accommodate a mother who needs to load two small children into it. Or consider a recent ad for Bounty paper towels, in which a husband and son stand by watching a spill cross the room, until Mom comes along and cheerfully cleans up the mess.

Meanwhile, women are increasingly gaining influencein the work world. As we write, the number of working women in the United States is about to surpass the number of working men. Three-quarters of the people who have lost jobs in the current recession are men. To be fair, women are still paid less, on average, than men, and are more likely to work part-time—factors that have helped insulate them somewhat from the crisis. Nevertheless, we believe that as this recession abates, women not only will represent one of the largest market opportunities in our lifetimes but also will be an important force in spurring a recovery and generating new prosperity.

women rule

Michael J. Silverstein and Kate Sayre

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