“As a market, women represent a bigger opportunity than China and India combined,” reads a September 2009 headline from Harvard Business Review.

The article shows that women make the key spending decisions at home: When the Jones need a new car, she makes the decision to purchase a mini-van or SUV that’s good for the family, rather than the two-seater he thinks is more sexy. But “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.”

And a recent Economist article shows that women now make up more than 51% of the workforce in the U.S. (a trend we see globally), but that they earn (on average) only 80% of what men earn in similar jobs. And women make up only 2% of bosses in Fortune 500 firms today.

Journalists are writing more and more good articles about the so-called “female economy,” linking both sides of the supply and demand equation. I want to contribute a story to the stack of literature building up on this forward-looking topic.

A few good men

My story begins the day I left my good job as senior manager at a brand-name search technology company (not Google) in Silicon Valley. I left because my boss, in my view, was unethical and had asked me to do things I was not comfortable with.

The situation went on for months and produced so much stress for me that it had a tremendous impact on my happiness at work and at home.

Months before resigning, I informed our Human Resources department about my observations and, through the process of trying to expose and solve the problem, I realized the whole chain of command—from my boss (a VP) up to the most senior level—seemed to be part of an “old boys network” in which they were all protected.

No one handed me a play-book that spelled it out, and no one explicitly told me that’s the way it was. I intuited the reality by acting the way I felt was right, listening to the responses I received, and heeding my gut.

Through my efforts, I was able to establish that my complaints were not the first of their nature about my boss at that company. My HR rep empathized with me, but explained that my complaint would likely only make things worse for me, not my boss.

When I went up the chain myself, the information I provided was received by our president, with whom I met, with a cunning smile and his personal guarantee I must be misinformed because he had the highest regard for my boss, with whom he had worked for years and in whom he had placed his implicit trust.

In fact, as my boss and his boss learned of my concerns, it was subtly revealed to me that things would get worse for me if I didn’t fall in line and/or leave voluntarily.

So I left, feeling like I failed my team by abandoning ship, leaving them in the hands of malevolent and untrustworthy leadership. And I felt like I’d failed myself for not knowing how to better handle the situation. Better, in my view, would have been to identify the faulty leadership, thoroughly examine it, and implement an appropriate action plan to remedy the problem.

Large-scale corporate scandals were breaking news around the same time, and the activities of Enron’s Jeff Skilling and Kenneth Lay, MCIs Bernard Ebbers, and Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski (all of whom were convicted and imprisoned), though shocking, gave me the inner-strength to articulate my concerns and the clarity to leave my job.

I decided to take a short sabbatical to regroup, and let the poison of the toxic environment leave my system. While on break I researched firms and their leadership, taking a close look at the corporations where scandal was identified, and quickly realized that most (if not all) the leaders involved were men.

Not only that, I also observed that of the very few women who held senior leadership roles in Fortune 500/1000s around the nation at that time (AT&T’s and HP’s Carly Fiorina, Autodesk’s Carol Bartz, and eBay’s Meg Whitman), none had been involved in a major corporate scandal.

So mid-way through my sabbatical I decided I would only apply to companies that were interesting to me (HP was out) and led by women (Autodesk and eBay were in). I knew women were fallible, like men, but I guessed that women might be less likely to succumb to greed and deception.

The headlines about corporate scandals, it turns out, were a personal tipping point in my thinking about leadership; however, I had started really paying attention to female leaders back in 1977, when I was twelve, and had traveled to the very far north of Canada to visit my uncle’s homestead for the summer.

What I observed up in “the bush” when I was twelve stayed with me and enabled me to finally listen to my gut in Silicon Valley.

The draft-dodger’s wife

My uncle, Tom, and his wife, Deborah, were Americans who dodged the draft in 1969 by crossing the border from Vermont into Quebec. They fled to Canada and, according to my uncle’s version of the events, they sought the most remote place they could find that was somewhat accessible by road.

They drove their pickup truck cross-country to British Columbia, from where they found their way to smaller and more remote towns and villages until they arrived at Telegraph Creek, which got its name from the telegraph wire run from that town to Yukon during the gold rush of the 1860s. From there they took a boat down the Stikine River, deep into the wilderness, where they squatted on Crown Land and got title to their homestead.

Telegraph Creek, 1977

I took the single-prop “mail plane” to Telegraph that summer, and found a Huckleberry Finn-scale adventure waiting for me, and the beginnings of lessons I’ve carried with me for more than thirty years.

For one thing, when you live in the wilderness each activity contributes to the family’s household economy. Thus it is quite easy to see how every thing is either an input (a raw material, like a seed or a tree, for example) or an output (a product of work, like a potato or a log cabin, for example). Likewise, in homesteading it’s easy to see that those who own the labor, land, and capital (like men and women and their belongings) also provide the factors of production (like the processes and skills used to make the goods they require to live).

The labor, land, and factors of production: my little cousins

It is also quite easy to understand the law of supply and demand in action, and to observe the components of the external environment (long winters and short summers, for example, or the available bear, fish, and moose populations, for example) and the internal environment (the number of children in a family, for example) as forces that influence priorities and decisions.

When you live in the wilderness, all activities contribute to work, requiring skill, experience, efficiency, careful planning, stamina, burst capacity, leadership, and teamwork.

Tom and Deborah built their own house. They designed and built their own river-boat. They loaded their own bullets, and hunted for their food. They tilled land, planted seeds, harvested vegetables, and canned their food for winter. They fished the river for salmon alongside Tahltan Indians, who taught them not only how to survive but to flourish by working as a community when possible.

The bush is a place where leadership is held by everyone, and where women and men contribute equally to the economy and safety of the family and its home.

75-pound twelve-year-old cleaning a 60-pound Chinook salmon.

Deborah’s contribution was as substantial as Tom’s on a physical level: She chopped wood, fished, hunted, and gardened, as well as tanned moose hides, smoked and canned fish and meat, and made and mended clothing and gear.

Deborah (left) managed production of all fish and meat. This is the "Fish House."

In some ways her role, her network, her collaborative spirit, and her insights seemed more significant than Tom’s because they extended the family’s reach through exchange with other families, whereas much of Tom’s work was solitary: going on longer hunts; maintaining large mechanical devices like the hand-crank tractor, the boat engine, the chainsaw, and boxes of tools, axes, guns, and fishnets.

Tom connected the drive belt from the gas Rototiller to the free-standing washing machine's engine and voila--a real laundromat in the middle of the bush.

Neighboring Tahltans and other homesteaders held Tom and Deborah in high regard. They were serious and accomplished beyond their thirty years, and they led their family courageously and with sensitivity. They contributed to their community without hesitation, and they had the highest respect for Nature from which they drew their living.

I can’t determine who, if either, contributed more, and that’s not the point; my point is that Deborah enabled me to see women’s contributions in a way that had not been available to me at home, in the city, where families have more than they need, and where it is neither apparent nor obvious how the work women and men perform relates to the goods they own.

A few good women

Nor is it always clear why and how leaders of firms become leaders, or how firms justify their 400:1 executive-to-worker salary ratios, let alone how some leaders manage to retain leadership roles even in the face of persistent, consistent criticism, as was the case with my boss at the search technology firm (or in the cases of Enron, MCI, and Tyco).

What is clear, however, is the growing contribution of women to the workforce—locally and globally. It’s also clear that those who see this trend and choose to understand it will be able to serve this market better and will likely be better served by it.

Here are a few stand-out thoughts around women—as contributors, as markets, and as a vibrant yet underserved part of the world economies (courtesy of The Economist):

  1. Today women make up the majority of professional workers in many countries (51% in the United States, for example).
  2. Demand has been matched by supply: women are increasingly willing and able to work outside the home. The vacuum cleaner has played its part. Improved technology reduced the amount of time needed for the traditional female work of cleaning and cooking. But the most important innovation has been the contraceptive pill. The spread of the pill has not only allowed women to get married later. It has also increased their incentives to invest time and effort in acquiring skills, particularly slow-burning skills that are hard to learn and take many years to pay off.
  3. This growing cohort of university-educated women is also educated in more marketable subjects. In 1966, 40% of American women who received a BA specialized in education in college; 2% specialized in business and management. The figures are now 12% and 50%.
  4. A recent Rockefeller Foundation/Time survey found…Nine men out of ten said they were comfortable with women earning more than them.
  5. Only 2% of the bosses of Fortune 500 companies and five of those in the FTSE 100 stockmarket index are women. Women make up less than 13% of board members in America. In America and Britain the typical full-time female worker earns only about 80% as much as the typical male.
  6. Another American study, this time of women who left work to have children, found that all but 7% of them wanted to return to work. Only 74% managed to return, and just 40% returned to full-time jobs.
  7. A survey for the Children’s Society, a British charity, found that 60% of parents agreed that “nowadays parents aren’t able to spend enough time with their children”. In a similar survey in America 74% of parents said that they did not have enough time for their children.
  8. The Scandinavian countries, particularly Iceland, have added a further wrinkle by increasing incentives for fathers to spend more time caring for their children.
  9. The world’s biggest economy has adopted an idiosyncratic approach. America provides no statutory paid leave for mothers and only 12 weeks unpaid. At least 145 countries provide paid sick leave.
  10. In the European Union women have filled 6m of the 8m new jobs created since 2000.

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) study cited in Harvard Business Review reveals that even though the “female economy” is roughly twice as big as the economies of China and India combined, our companies are not aware of this, and in the main they do not design, develop, and market useful products and services to women.

If you’re a woman, you know what this research is talking about.

If you’re a guy—especially if you’re in a business where you supply a product or a service—you want to have a look at the segments (aka, types of females) that make up the “female economy” and the product and service offerings women say are underserved today.

Are women better leaders than men? Are they more honest and trustworthy? It’s probably not that simple.

The “female economy” is multi-dimensional: research shows women make the buying decisions; it also shows that women are not satisfied with today’s offerings (products and services are often designed by men for an historically male market); but women now make up more than half (in the U.S.) of the workforce, although women and men are not evenly distributed throughout the corporation; as the distribution normalizes, women will play a more equal role in analyzing, designing, and supplying products and services that women demand.


For further reading, see The Female Economy, by Michael J. Silverstein and Kate Sayre.

If you’re interested in earning extra points with your spouse, daughter, aunt, or your future boss, take the same survey thousands of women took for the BCG study:


© John Dila 2009