You can find the future of the world’s women not in Scandinavia or the U.S., but among the entrepreneurs who line the streets of Mumbai, Manila and Sao Paulo. Selling everything from mangoes to home-made blouses, these women, usually considered the very bottom of their home country’s employment barrel, represent the cutting-edge of progress for women in the 21st century.
This marks a departure from past decades, when the advancement of women was visible almost solely in the wealthiest of countries. Surveys of female achievements have consistently singled out just a sliver of the globe, but increasingly, women are making the greatest strides elsewhere — in the rapidly growing developing world.
Women in these countries are newly empowered by remarkable gains in political representation, legal rights and, especially, education. But more important, they are rising in the 21st century’s key economic strata: as business owners.
For our analysis of the countries where women are rising the fastest, we looked at three factors: education, politics and entrepreneurship. We studied the United Nations’ demographics on post-secondary education (current and historical) and on political participation. To assess the business environment, we examined statistics from Global Entrepreneurship Monitor on nascent entrepreneurship and the World Bank and World Economic Forum on gaps between male and female business ownership. We searched the global press, pored through research publications by financial institutions and NGOs, and visited some locations. Finally, we crunched the numbers, information and observations and came up with our own impressions.
Our top picks for places where women were rising the fastest — as opposed to merely surfing an already advantageous position — were found largely in the developing world — particularly in Brazil, India, Vietnam and the Philippines.
A vital benchmark of this progress is the large role that women play in business ownership in these places. In many developing countries the rate of female entrepreneurship surpasses that in the G-7 nations. Many become entrepreneurs by necessity: Often locked out of the of the best opportunities in the job market by cultural and sometimes legal barriers, women are starting businesses at rapid rates in Latin America, India, East Asia and even Africa and Central Europe.
In contrast, female entrepreneurship rates aren’t rising in many of the most advanced countries. Despite talk of the feminization of advanced societies, the percentages of women-owned businesses are inching downward in the U.S., and they are stagnant in the E.U. To some extent, this slowdown reflects greatly expanded opportunities for a new generation of women, considerably more educated than their mothers, in both the mid-level job market and the highest corporate tiers. These changes have been accelerated by shifts in the nature of employment that favor “brains” and collaboration over traditional male advantages in “brawn” and single-minded ambition.
The Rise of the Female Entrepreneur
Latin America is a premiere example of the rise of female business ownership. Both Brazil and Costa Rica rank in the World Bank’s top 10 countries for female ownership participation. The region also stands out for its small gender gap in new businesses: Women are now starting businesses as often men, and sometimes succeeding. Among the top countries with the greatest equality between women and men in establishing new ventures, Global Entrepreneurship Monitor notes that many Latin American countries, especially Brazil and Peru, now have a gap that is smaller than in the U.S. or anywhere in Europe.
The same trend is emerging in Asia. In the more tropical countries, where women are impeded by unpaid family work combined with a notoriously grim labor picture, many own marginal businesses. South Asia’s bright spot for female entrepreneurs is India, with its highly developed support structure of national-level and local organizations for women’s SMEs and early participation in micro-finance. And female entrepreneurs are thriving in Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand as well. For example, 24% of Vietnam’s 100,000-plus incorporated enterprises are owned by women; 27% of its 3 million household businesses are also female-owned. The rate of female private business owners in China, at 11 out of 100, is also higher than the world average of 7%. Surprisingly, famously chauvinist Japan is the only country in the world where the percentage of women who own their own businesses, 13%, edges out the percentage of males who do.
Eurasia and Central Eastern Europe have also experienced a surge in female entrepreneurial activity. As in Latin America, self-employment has often come about as a result of national tragedy and political dislocation — in this case, the economic disruption and male migration abroad that followed the fall of the Soviet Union.
Data on women in African economies are sparse, with the positive news focused on Lesotho, ranked No. 1 and No. 2 by the World Economic forum for economic opportunity in the last two years, and, unsurprisingly, South Africa, the continent’s most developed nation, considered Africa’s best economic climate for women’s by The Economist Intelligence Unit. Ghana has also drawn attention, with a World Food Program-initiated salt start-up. Micro-financiers, development NGOs and the United Nations have assisted small-scale women entrepreneurs in African nations like Kenya in establishing micro industries such as processing soap, fruit and maize.
Educated Women on the Front Lines
Across the globe female gains in education have skyrocketed. In tertiary education — which includes post-high school vocational schools as well as colleges and universities — females now outnumber males in one-third of developing countries, including Brazil, Bangladesh, Honduras, Lesotho, Malaysia, Mongolia and South Africa. Worldwide, between 1970 and 2008, the number of female tertiary students expanded by 70 million, compared with 60 million for males.
The Legal Right to Wages and Assets
Along with economic and education gains, women in developing countries are making substantial political gains. Part of a broader movement throughout the developing world toward political empowerment, women are gaining increased access to capital and property ownership, and greater national attentiveness to issues specific to women, such as domestic violence and female health.
One indication: The percentage of parliamentary seats held by women globally has risen considerably during the first decade of this century, and is now about 18%. As in entrepreneurship and education, the most dramatic gains now are not in the high-income countries but in the developing world, where sizable inroads to the very top tiers of government have also been made.
Latin America has become the most visible emblem of rising female political power sweeping across a region. When Brazil elected Dilma Rousseff as president in 2010, it joined its neighbors Argentina, Costa Rica and, until recently, Chile in having a female head of state. Latin America, too, is a world leader for female political representation, with 30%-plus parliamentary representation in Costa Rica, Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia.
Yet some of the most astonishing changes in representation have taken place in Africa, where Rwanda now has the world’s highest percentage of women in parliament and cabinet seats. Each of Rwanda’s parliamentary houses comprises 50% or more women. South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, Uganda and Tanzania also boast above-average rates.
The destiny of the global economy has shifted toward countries that once trailed behind but are now rapidly rising. In the same way, the trajectory of women’s progress — and the future of the ascendancy of women — has shifted from the developed to the developing world.
This piece originally appeared at Forbes.com.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and an adjunct fellow of the Legatum Institute in London. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.
Zina Klapper is a Los Angeles-based journalist, and Deputy Editor of newgeography.com.
Photo by flickr user Dawn Danby