Why women don't have access to international markets

business financial sector trade Mar 04, 2021

Around 4000 years ago a group of businesswomen wrote down their trials and tribulations on small tablets made from clay. The tablets were not bigger than the size of your hand. For millennia they survived hidden in the ground.

Today they have been found and translated.

The women were part of a commercial settlement of Assyrian merchants in the ancient city of  Kaneš. They produced textile for export, issued loans to merchants and invested in a type of type of financial instrument that funded camel caravans (which I guess were the startups of the time… )

These women are:

  • The first-known business women.

  • The first-known female investors.

  • The first- known female bankers.

And it was 4000 years ago!

International trade today is incredibly male dominated.

When a government, or a big company, buys something in bulk (coffee, pencils, grapefruit, soap, whatever!) it’s called procurement. Public procurement accounts for around one-fifth of global GDP. It’s MASSIVE. But did you know how much of this market women entrepreneurs supply?

1 percent!


(Can you IMAGINE how depressed the women of Kaneš would have been if they had known this 4000 years ago…)

In her latest book professor Linda Scott tells the story of a research project she did with Walmart. The American retail giant had promised to double their spending with women in international markets.

And it proved difficult.

Big companies and governments want to buy products from suppliers that meet certain criteria: toilets in their factories, lighted exits, doors that swing both ways, etc, etc…

It all sounds good on paper. But women often start with informal enterprises working from home. They would probably love to have nice factories with doors that swing both ways but they don’t have access to capital. 80 percent of women-owned businesses that need credit are unserved or underserved globally.  

Linda Scott also ran up against rules against children present in the factory. This sounds good of course: we don’t want child labor! But what about the women who looked after the children together as a group while they worked?

This was their childcare!

So, how come that 4000 years the businesswomen of Kaneš managed to build wealth through trade? Well, their society was set up in a way that their skills as weavers allowed them to earn their own silver.

This leads us to a bigger economic question: why have women specialised in cloth and weaving? The theory is that women have specialised in activities that are relatively repetitive, easily interruptible and can be done not too far from home. Why? You all know the answer:


If a child needs your attention you can go back to weaving after you have comforted them/found their toy/wiped their mouth. This is a lot harder with say: pouring molten metal…

There’s definitely a lesson here: If women can earn money from things that are compatible with having children they will.

4000 years ago and today.

Happy Thursday!




The secret letters of history's first-known businesswomen

Professor Linda Scott’s brilliant book The Double X Economy

Women’s work: The First 20 000 years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber

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"Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas Get Ignored In An Economy Built For Men" UK edition

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