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Driving Growth: The Female Economy in China and India

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In This Article
  • The increasingly affluent and powerful female consumers in China and India will stimulate extraordinary growth—and deliver growth to the companies that serve them.
  • China's female economy will grow from $1.3 trillion in 2010 to $4 trillion in 2020.
  • India's female economy is more fragile—but it is expanding and will reach $900 billion by 2020.
  • Understanding what Chinese and Indian women want—their devotion to their children, their desire for safe and nutritious food, their fondness for affordable luxury, their brand consciousness—will be critical to the success of companies operating in these markets.

WX Liu is a farmer in Shunhezhuang, a small village deep in China’s northeastern province of Hebei. It is no rural idyll, and her calloused and muscular hands reflect a lifetime of working long hours in the fields. Now nearly 60, she has endured droughts, disappointing harvests, and unpredictable prices for her corn, and she has had only limited access to modern agricultural technology.

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Yet despite her tough existence, she is cheerful and smiles often. With her own hard work, combined with the income earned by her live-in son and daughter-in-law, she is starting to fulfill some of her dreams. She lives in a two-story house that has a garage for the two cars that she still hopes to buy one day. She built her home brick by brick, having borrowed money from friends and relatives. “I am pretty satisfied with my life now,” she says, in her rapid-fire, no-nonsense way. “It’s so much better than it was just a few years ago.”

Across the Himalayan peaks, Saumya, a 33-year-old middle-class Indian, is fulfilling a similar dream. She recently moved to an apartment on the eleventh floor of a high-rise complex in Whitefield, one of the best suburbs in Bangalore, India’s third-largest city. It has everything that she and her husband, Jaideep, were looking for: landscaped gardens, children’s play areas, a clubhouse, a gym, tennis courts, and a huge shopping center. From the moment she moved in, she set about filling the apartment with beautiful things. “Ever since my childhood, I have always wanted to decorate my own house,” she says. “I just thought it would be such a great feeling to live in a home that had been decorated from corner to corner by me.”

Throughout China and India, there are millions of women from all walks of life who could tell similar stories. They are driving the female economy in China and India—and they are driving growth.

China’s female economy is already strong—and over the next few years, we expect to see it grow even stronger. In particular, young professional women will break into middle and top management jobs and fuel the next wave of growth in the luxury business. Female earnings in China will grow from $1.3 trillion in 2010 to $4 trillion by 2020, up from $680 billion in 2005 and $350 billion in 2000. That is more than a tenfold increase in 20 years.

By contrast, India’s female economy is more fragile. In the world’s biggest democracy, India’s voters elected a female prime minister (Indira Gandhi) and a female president (Pratibha Patil). But only the most affluent urban women have a real taste of equality. For the rest, there is significant gender discrimination, limited access to education, low formal labor-participation rates, and low wages. The female labor-force participation rate has been stuck at around 32 percent since 2000, while female wages have actually declined to 26 percent of men’s wages, on average. This decline is driven by repressive, education-stunting conditions in rural areas as well as by a government unwilling to step in and end discrimination, harassment, and physical threats.

Nonetheless, the overall size of the Indian female economy is expanding fast. In 2010, some 134 million working women earned $280 billion. By 2020, there will be 158 million working women and their earnings will have more than tripled—to some $900 billion.

With Chinese and Indian women earning close to $5 trillion annually by 2020, understanding what they truly want will be critical to the success of companies operating in the two countries.