updated 3/1/2009 11:16:10 AM ET 2009-03-01T16:16:10

Excerpted from Dee Dee Myers' book, "Why Women Should Rule the World."

The Smart Thing
So what might we expect from a world without double standards?  In a word: equality.  But equality doesn’t mean that men and women are the same.  It doesn’t mean that women have to try harder to act like men, think like men, look like men.  “Because if women buy into that, then everything else becomes men are the normative standard of behavior in the world outside of the home,” Dr. Bernadine Healy, the first female head of the National Institutes of Health, explains.  “Outside of maternal behavior, men are the standard.  And that has ramifications that I think have filtered into education, filtered into keeping women down.  Because women can never play that game, any more than you would ever expect a man to do the same.  So part of even the women’s health movement, I think, was recognizing that women are different.”

Different.  But equal.  That doesn’t mean that every man should be expected to behave one way, nor every woman another.  Rather, it means that women’s ideas and opinions and experiences should be taken as seriously as men’s – regardless of whether they conform to traditional stereotypes.   And it’s not just about doing the “right” thing; it’s about doing the smart thing.

Increasingly, women are the engine driving economic growth worldwide.  Since 1980, women have taken two jobs for every one filled by a man.  And their influx into the workplace has contributed more to global economic growth than either new technology or the new giants, India and China.  What’s more, when you add the value of housework, child-rearing and other domestic chores, women probably account for more than half the world’s output.  But women aren’t just workers.  They are increasingly important as managers, consumers, investors, entrepreneurs and directors.

According to a recent study by Catalyst, an organization that tracks women in business, Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women on their boards performed better financially – significantly better.  When compared to companies with the fewest women in the board room, those with the most saw a 53 percent higher return on equity, a 42 percent higher return on sales and a 66 percent higher return on invested capital.  Moreover, the findings were consistent across most industries, from consumer goods to information technology.

Why?  Among other things, companies that are willing to look beyond the traditional (read: white and male) labor pool are finding a large and growing reservoir of talent.  Women now earn 60 percent of bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and nearly half of all doctorates, law degrees and medical degrees.  As the world changes, women are particularly well qualified to contribute in a marketplace that values brains over brawn – and new ideas above all.

Women already make the vast majority of purchasing decisions, and their financial power continues to grow.  Women account for nearly half the workforce, and between 1990 and 2003 their median income grew 25.6 percent, compared with 8.1 percent growth for men. According to BusinessWeek and Gallup, women will control some $12 trillion – more than half of America’s wealth –  by the year 2010.

In 2003, De Beers, the diamond industry conglomerate, launched a new ad campaign that recognized these changes.  “The Left Hand Rocks the Cradle; The Right Hand Rules the World,” read the caption, below a picture of a woman’s right hand sporting a bit of bling on the third finger.  To be sure, the right-hand ring is not new; it used to be called a “cocktail ring.”  What is new is that women are increasingly buying them – and other pieces of jewelry – for themselves.  While arguably more a reaction to this growing trend than the cause, the De Beers ad nonetheless reflects a changing marketplace.

A decade earlier, the chief strategist at Goldman Sachs in Tokyo – a woman -- recognized this trend and devised a basket of 115 Japanese companies that she believed would benefit from the changing needs and increased purchasing power of women.  It included everything from financial services to online retailing, beauty, clothing and prepared foods.  Over the past decade, the value of shares in this basket has increased 96 percent – while the value of the Tokyo stock market has risen only 13 percent.  

Not only are women a wise investment, they are also wise investors.  Numerous studies suggest that – contrary to conventional wisdom – women “consistently achieve higher financial returns than men do.”  They tend to do their homework, buy and sell based on information and thoughtful consideration, and keep their portfolios balanced.   Men, on the other hand, are more likely to buy on a tip, over invest in “hot” stocks, hold onto losing investments too long, and churn their accounts, which reduces return.

Women aren’t just changing the marketplace, they’re also changing politics.   As voters, women increasingly vote independently of their husbands, fathers and brothers.  In every presidential election since 1980, there has been a gender gap.  And in each of the last three, men and women, voting alone, would have elected different candidates.  In addition, studies show that as elected leaders, women feel a special responsibility to represent women.   True, ideology is generally more important than gender when it comes to politics and policy; not all women think and feel the same about important issues.  Still, women are more likely to introduce and support legislation benefiting women, children, and families, regardless of party.  Experts also say that voters tend to believe women are “better listeners, more honest and can work across party lines.”  So at a time when progress on important issues has been stalled by intense partisanship, the increased presence of women can help reassure citizens – and break the logjam.

Nobel Prize laureate economist Amartya Sen believes that “nothing, arguably, is as important in the political economy of development as an adequate recognition of political, economic and social participation, and leadership of women.”  Empowering women, he argues, not only improves their well-being (and that of their children), it also leads to other, broader social changes.  For example, educating girls yields higher return than educating boys in many countries. It does more to lower fertility and infant mortality rates, and improves agricultural productivity.

Without a doubt, the increased presence and power of women in public life has generated enormous, positive change.  But getting to a place beyond double standards, where equality is not a slogan but a way of life, will demand more.  It begins with acknowledging that men and women are different.  And it embraces the idea that because they are different, women will bring with them a different mix of experience, values and points of view.  That, in turn, will expand the range of what’s acceptable – and what’s possible.   It won’t be easy; if it were, it would have already been done.  But it’s in our economic, social and political interest to create a world that’s freer and fairer.  Where women have more power – and are allowed to use it.  Where everyone is judged by their performance – and their potential.  Where double standards are only a distant memory.

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