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Abroad, women boost earnings, but clout is iffy

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There's a rising tide of female market power across the globe. Call it the feminization of the economy. For example: • Economic activity of women grew in every region of the world during the 1980s and 1990s, except for Oceania, sub-Saharan Africa, and the former Soviet states, according to a report issued in January by the United Nation's Millennium Project.

• By 2002, women in several nations - including New Zealand, Finland, and Britain - held more than half the nonagricultural jobs, the UN study found.

But there's a disconnect. In societies where women traditionally have borne responsibility for managing money, the private sector is now rolling out high-end financial services to cater to women's sensibilities and preferences. Meanwhile, in settings where women historically have not held such roles, cultural and legal hurdles seem to be sustaining a glass ceiling - even for women whose incomes have doubled or tripled in recent years.

Example: Japan. A dozen Japanese mutual funds specialize in socially responsible investments (SRI), according to a 2004 study from the Natural Capital Institute. Prior to 1998, SRI was virtually unknown in Japan. But now the industry is growing, thanks to an investor base that is mostly female.

"It is said that [Japanese] women care more about the future planet ... and [are] more concerned with safety and reliability of goods and services they purchase" than Japanese men are, says Kyoko Sakuma, executive director of Sustainability Analysis and Consulting in Brussels. A rash of recent scandals involving unsafe food, she says, accounts for a surge of interest in this sector among Japan's female investors.

For generations, women in Japan have been the unofficial "finance minister of the family," giving monthly allowances to their husbands and children, says Setsuko Sakakibara, president of Albero Sacro Limited, a Tokyo financial advisory firm.

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