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Bridging the financial inclusion gender gap

Robin Lewis, John Villasenor, and Darrell M. West

While significant progress has been made in terms of facilitating greater access to and use of financial services among underserved populations, barriers to financial inclusion remain. The global dialogue surrounding the financial inclusion gender gap (referring to the disproportionate exclusion of women from access to and usage of formal financial services) has intensified as key stakeholders—including financial service providers, regulatory bodies, policymakers, civil society entities, and consumers—explore how best to engage prospective women customers in ways that meet the needs of both consumers and providers situated within different market contexts.

As part of the consultation process for the second annual Brookings Financial and Digital Inclusion Project (FDIP) report and scorecard, to be published in late summer 2016, the FDIP team held a roundtable in March 2016 to facilitate dialogue and knowledge-sharing regarding the issue of gender disparities in access to and usage of formal financial services. The first FDIP report and scorecard, published in August 2015, are available here.

The roundtable provided an opportunity for participants to discuss the legal, policy, and cultural drivers of the gender gap, highlight examples of enabling approaches in countries that have made strides in reducing the gender gap, and identify action steps for governments, financial service providers, and consumers in terms of promoting greater equity within the financial landscape. Before diving into the key themes and action items explored at the roundtable, below is some background on the nature and implications of the gender gap.

What is the financial inclusion gender gap, and why does it matter?

From 2011 to 2014, the percentage of women in developing economies with formal financial accounts increased by 13 percentage points, according to the World Bank’s Global Financial Inclusion (Global Findex) database. In relative terms, these gains were comparable to those among men in developing economies during the same time period—but in absolute terms, there remains considerable room for growth, as half of women in developing economies still did not have formal financial accounts as of 2014.

While there is good reason to celebrate the tremendous gains made across the financial inclusion landscape in recent years, significant opportunity for expanding access to and usage of financial services among women remains. Globally, the financial inclusion gender gap remained at seven percentage points between 2011 and 2014, and in developing economies the gap was even higher, at nine percentage points.

The FDIP focus countries reflect this global trend. Of the 21 FDIP focus countries examined within the 2015 FDIP Report and Scorecard, only four (Indonesia, the Philippines, Mexico, and South Africa) exhibited either gender parity or a greater percentage of women than men who reported using mobile money within the previous 12 months or holding an account at a bank or another type of financial institution.

The gender gap is of course not the only global disparity in terms of access to and usage of financial services—for example, rural and low-income populations are often underserved by formal financial service providers compared with their more urban and wealthier counterparts. (You can learn more about financial inclusion among these underserved groups across different economic, political, and geographic contexts in the 2015 FDIP Report and Scorecard.) Indeed, in 2014 the gap between account ownership among the poorest 40 percent of households in developing economies and the richest 60 percent of households in developing economies was about five percentage points higher than the gender gap in developing economies.

However, as noted by the Global Findex, the global financial inclusion gender gap remained essentially static from 2011 to 2014, while the financial inclusion income gap was reduced by several percentage points. Additionally, the increase in ownership of formal accounts among the poorest 40 percent of households in developing economies was slightly higher proportionately than the increase in ownership of formal accounts among women in developing economies over the same period. In short, the gender gap is particularly noteworthy for its persistence over time and for the broad scope of the underserved population it represents.

Investing in women and girls should be a shared priority across public and private sector stakeholders given the economic and civic implications of female participation in the formal financial ecosystem. From a micro perspective, having convenient access to a suite of quality financial services enables women to invest in themselves, in their families, and in their communities by saving for the future, paying for educational and health expenses, putting money toward small businesses, and engaging in other productive financial activities. Participants at the roundtable noted that a less tangible—but no less valuable—outcome of facilitating access to and usage of formal financial services among women is the sense of empowerment many women feel when they are equipped with greater control of their finances.

For businesses, reaching an untapped segment of the market with products and services that individual customers find useful would augment providers’ revenue. From a macroeconomic perspective, women’s economic empowerment has increasingly been regarded as “contributing to sustained inclusive and equitable economic growth, and sustainable development,” as noted in a recent study by the Global Banking Alliance for Women in partnership with Data2X and the Multilateral Investment Fund of the Inter-American Development Bank.

If women’s participation in the financial ecosystem is so advantageous, why hasn’t the gender gap improved?

A number of legal, policy, and cultural restrictions have constrained access to and usage of financial services among women. A few examples of these constraints are described below; additional information on access and usage barriers is available in the 2015 FDIP Report.

  • Legal, regulatory, and policy barriers: The World Bank Group’s Women, Business, and the Law project has examined data regarding legal and regulatory restrictions on entrepreneurship and employment among women since 2009. The project’s 2016 report found that about 90 percent of the 173 economies covered in the study had at least one law impeding women’s economic opportunities. For example, in some countries women are not permitted to open a bank account or are required to provide specific permission or additional documentation that is burdensome (or even impossible) to obtain. Restrictions on whether property is titled in a women’s name can also impede access to finance since titled land is often a preferred form of collateral among banks. Moreover, women are less likely than men to have the identification documents needed to open formal financial accounts. Among adults without an account at a financial institution as of 2014, 17 percent of women stated that a lack of necessary documentation was a barrier to their use of an account. Promoting a unique, universal identification system can facilitate access to formal labor markets and formal financial services.
  • Cultural barriers: One example of a cultural constraint on usage of financial services among women is that many women may be more comfortable utilizing formal financial services when they can interact with a female point of contact, which is often not a readily available option.  
  • Technological barriers: Digital financial services such as mobile money can help mitigate financial access barriers, in part by enabling women to more easily open accounts and to complete transactions through their phones without visiting a “brick and mortar” store. However, the gender gap in mobile phone ownership and usage must be addressed to fully take advantage of the benefits of digital financial services. The GSMA’s 2015 report noted that the most frequently cited barrier to mobile phone ownership and usage was cost, and cultural dynamics in which men prohibit women from owning or using a phone also contribute to the gap. Incongruous policies in some markets such as more stringent registration processes for SIMs and mobile money accounts than for bank accounts can also inhibit adoption of digital financial services.

What are examples of initiatives to facilitate greater financial inclusion among women?

Participants highlighted several examples of initiatives that were designed to promote women’s financial inclusion. For example, Diamond Bank in Nigeria and Women’s World Banking developed a savings product called a BETA account that could be opened over the phone with no minimum balance and no fees. The product was designed to be affordable and convenient for individuals engaging in frequent deposits, with agents visiting customers’ businesses to facilitate transactions. Other add-on products are being built around this basic product to provide more opportunities for individuals to use the financial services most useful to them. While the product was developed for women, it is available to both men and women.

Also in Nigeria, MasterCard and UN Women have partnered on an initiative that aims to educate women on the benefits of a national identification program and enroll half a million Nigerian women in this program so that they receive identification cards that include electronic payments functionality.

What can be done to advance gender equity within the financial ecosystem?

One of the central questions discussed during the roundtable was how to reconcile the sometimes diverging mandates of businesses, public sector actors, and the development community in order to foster a sustainable financial and economic ecosystem. In short, businesses must generate profits to be sustainable, while development community and public sector entities often focus on longer-term micro- and macro-economic growth and development. The challenge with these potentially competing time horizons is that initiatives involving a complex network of participants (such as those to cultivate women’s financial participation) may take time to scale. Moreover, some of the major factors contributing to the financial inclusion gender gap (such as lower financial literacy levels among women) will require a long-term approach to fully address.

The good news is that serving women customers ultimately meets the complementary objectives of benefiting providers by expanding their customer base and benefiting consumers by enabling them to use financial services to improve their lives and invest in their communities. Thus, leveraging data to present the business case to providers (see point 1 below) and promoting dialogue across public and private sector representatives (see point 2 below) will enable different players in the financial ecosystem to identify the best approaches to closing the gender gap in ways that are sustainable for consumers and providers.

While the list below is certainly not exhaustive, it highlights several pathways for promoting women’s financial inclusion.

  1. Generate data to better serve customers and attract providers: While we delineate the gender gap in terms of men and women, women (like all customer segments) are not monolithic. Thus, the intent of demand- and supply-side data collection should be to inform the development and delivery of a suite of products and services that target customer segments and to make a business case for offering those products and services. Many financial institutions have historically refrained from collecting data disaggregated by sex because doing so was perceived as discriminatory and/or ineffective given the issue of duplicability in reporting. Government leadership on collecting sex-disaggregated data can help ameliorate this issue. An in-depth look at the process of collecting and analyzing sex-disaggregated data is provided in the recent case study on Chile published by the Global Banking Alliance for Women, Data2X, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Multilateral Investment Fund of the Inter-American Development Bank.
  2. Promote inward and outward-facing stakeholder collaboration: Financial service providers and non-government entities active within the financial services landscape should find champions of women’s economic empowerment within their organizations to help build strategies for reaching women customers with appropriate products and services. Representatives from both the public and private sectors should work together to facilitate dialogue and collaboration across relevant stakeholders such as telecommunications providers, formal and informal financial institutions, public sector representatives, and consumers. This objective should be reflected in countries’ national financial inclusion strategies where possible.
  3. Engage in client-centric design: Providers should deploy relevant data to evaluate customers’ needs and reflect those needs in product design, provision, and promotion. By thinking about the customer experience of access and usage holistically, providers will have the potential to sustainably amplify adoption of financial services.
  4. Invest in financial education and financial capability among women and girls: Many women feel that they do not have enough money to hold an account with a formal financial institution, as evidenced by the 2014 Global Findex results noting that 57 percent of women without an account at a financial institution cited having insufficient funds as a barrier to account ownership. Financial inclusion stakeholders should aim to familiarize prospective female customers with appropriate, affordable financial services and promote sound financial behaviors that will help spur greater financial inclusion.
  5. Adapt anti-money laundering/countering the financing of terrorism requirements to reflect perceived risks: Enabling risk-based “know your customer” (KYC) processes such as the tiered KYC approach applied in the Diamond Bank example above or in other countries such as Mexico reduces access barriers to formal financial accounts. For more information on KYC processes among different countries, please see the 2015 FDIP Report and Scorecard.
  6. Formalize informal financial entities as appropriate: According to the 2014 Global Findex, about 160 million unbanked adults in developing economies saved through informal savings clubs or a non-family member. Vetting and formalizing certain informal providers to ensure adequate consumer protection while preserving services that are familiar and accessible to customers could advance women’s financial inclusion.
  7. Leverage digital financial tools to facilitate greater access to and usage of formal financial services:
  • Digital platforms can help reduce disparities in access to identification documents. For example, an initiative in Tanzania allows health workers to deliver birth certificates using a mobile phone. Birth certificates facilitate access to healthcare, education, and other important government services, including government-to-person payments.
  • Digital financial services such as mobile money can provide greater privacy, convenience, and security to customers who have been disproportionately excluded from the formal financial system. For more information on developing enabling infrastructure and policy environments to support mobile money access and usage, please refer to the 2015 FDIP Report.
  • Using “big data” generated by and about consumers on digital platforms helps providers better evaluate the creditworthiness of individuals who may previously have been excluded from the formal financial system due to a lack of or minimal credit history. Since women often lack credit history, these innovative measures to assess credit risk and collateral issues can contribute to women’s economic empowerment by facilitating access to credit. As with all financial services, these “big data, small credit” propositions should be coupled with adequate consumer protection and privacy mechanisms.
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