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 / Summer 2010 / Issue 59(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Third Billion

But the multiplier effect of this group of women could be much greater than those of other demographic expansions, and in a way that has not yet been fully appreciated, for at least three reasons. First, the impact will be spread broadly; the women of the Third Billion are not limited to one country, but instead are dispersed in every part of the globe. Second, when women become more active economically, they tend to have fewer children. As the birthrate goes down, the social priorities of a culture change, and it becomes easier for more women to gain preparation and support for leading more independent lives. Third, these women are likely to invest a larger proportion of their household income than men would in the education of their children. As those children grow up, their economic impact increases further. This helps explain why, as a report issued by the United Nations Development Fund for Women found, investments in women’s enterprises in developing countries yielded greater long-term benefits to the economy as a whole than investments in male-owned enterprises.

Boosting the Potential

The full potential of the Third Billion is still unrealized in many localities where overall labor productivity remains low. These regions are therefore able to reap particularly strong benefits through a coordinated approach that helps women overcome their “not prepared” and “not enabled” status.

Such efforts must start with an assessment of the specific constraints faced by Third Billion constituents in a given region. These may include inadequate infrastructure (lack of roads, schools, and telecommunications links); legal prohibitions on female advancement; social conventions that inhibit female participation in the workforce; government restrictions on small businesses; outdated approaches to risk and credit; and other social, legal, cultural, or financial norms and practices that make it difficult for women to go to school, seek employment freely, benefit from their earnings, or manage their lives in other ways.

Some of these challenges can be overcome with better planning at the local level, whereas others require top-down intervention from national governments. In either case, the goal should be to harness the power of women in a regional economy, to help develop a more integrated and productive activity base. The impact of this type of strategy could be significant in countries as disparate as Egypt, Malaysia, Ghana, Canada, Italy, and Poland.

And this is not only an opportunity for governments. Global corporations and nongovernmental organizations should also strategically assess what they can do to enable and prepare these women as potential consumers, employees, and citizens. As Center for Work–Life Policy founding president Sylvia Ann Hewlett has noted, some companies, including Goldman Sachs and Google, are building talent recruitment plans around the potential of the Third Billion. (The center is releasing a report on women in emerging markets in mid-2010.) “By investing in [these women],” Hewlett wrote in a 2010 blog entry on the Harvard Business Review website, “companies are betting on a brighter future — for a workforce just waiting to blossom, for economies whose development depends on this new crop of talent, and, of course, for themselves.”

The creativity of the Third Billion may provide the world with an unprecedented resource for driving economic growth and improving the quality of life over the next decade. Reaping this demographic dividend will not be easy, and it may require much social and legal change. But that change has already begun in many places, and it will spread to many more. For leaders, the next step is to recognize the value of this population of women, and the contribution they can make.

Author Profiles:

  • DeAnne Aguirre is a senior partner with Booz & Company based in San Francisco. She leads the firm’s work on organizational and talent effectiveness.
  • Karim Sabbagh is a Booz & Company partner based in Dubai. He leads the firm’s work for global communications, media, and technology clients.
  • Also contributing to this article were s+b contributing editor Sally Helgesen and Booz & Company Consultant Roshni Goel.
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