> Posted by Jessie Fisher and Robyn Robertson, Good Return

Globally 1.2 billion people live in extreme poverty, with women and girls disproportionately affected. Increasing access to technology creates opportunities in education, expanded informational resources, employment, entrepreneurship, and financial services – all of which can help break the cycle of poverty.

These are not new or debated ideas. However, in the realm of financial services, in order to harness advancements in technology and achieve greater and more meaningful inclusion of women, we still need to better understand their preferences and behaviors and the social context they inhabit.

This is where quality gender-based data, which has almost entirely been lacking in financial inclusion, plays a key role.

For example, to ensure we understand a new market, we must ask ourselves questions like: Have we invested the time and resources needed to meaningfully engage with both men and women? Have we considered the time needed to build trust in these communities (especially if they have had disappointing experiences with other organizations in the past)?

Satisfying such considerations isn’t simple or easy. We may also need to travel further to reach women clients, and provide safe spaces for them to speak openly about their lives and the things they would like to change.

Good Return’s research in the Solomon Islands worked to navigate these questions and challenges. The research aimed to investigate people’s financial capability, constraints, and needs, and identify related solutions.

Analysis of the consumer journey showed that women are just as likely to have access to a phone, have a bank account, or try mobile money – though only once they become aware of, understand, and have reason to trust these services.

However from the focus group discussions, women expressed clearly that most financial services marketing efforts feature men (either exclusively or as the ones in control of the device or the money), potentially conveying that mobile banking and other financial services are designed for men and not intended for women (or at least not for women to navigate alone).

Not only that, but existing mobile banking marketing material was perceived as largely irrelevant. It was presented in English rather than the local language, Pijin, and the pictures and brochure content were largely not reflective of the reality for people living in the Solomon Islands’ outer provinces, especially women.

During many focus group discussions, women from Ulawa and Isabel expressed concern about the skill needed to use a phone for SMS and the complexity of the mobile top-up system. They had many questions about how mobile banking worked – but expressed a strong willingness to learn if someone would show them.

Mobile operators aiming to be market leaders in the near term must excel at bringing on new women subscribers. Along with women being an unignorably big market segment, they’re also typically their household’s money managers. Getting women to try the service and building confidence and capacity through demonstration is key.

Women expressed a strong preference for training programs to be delivered at a community level, where spouses and family members would be required to attend together, to ensure key messages were not reframed or misinterpreted within the household, which creates the potential for disagreement and conflict. This feedback strengthened the case for new behaviors and social change at the household level.

By making such investment in listening to the voices of women, and analyzing data further, Good Return found women providing valuable insights on behavioral determinants for their communities.

Women’s financial inclusion as a contributor to financial sustainability was a strong theme of the inaugural Asia Pacific Financial Inclusion Summit, held in Manila 27-29 October.

Through an interactive workshop delivered by Women’s World Banking and Good Return at the Summit, the importance of gender-specific data was explored, and participants were introduced to Women’s World Banking’s Gender Performance Initiative (GPI). The initiative provides a guide including concise gender-based social and financial indicators that can help financial service providers (FSPs) better understand how to best serve women clients.

As a starting point, participants worked through the GPI’s Select 5 Indicators, which have been distilled by Women’s World Banking as the essential indicators for FSPs to begin measuring their gender performance. The Select 5 Indicators can be used to track and analyze the suitability of product design to meet women’s needs, as well as how serving women clients can contribute to the institution’s financial sustainability and generate positive social outcomes.

To date, the FSPs who have implemented the Select 5 Indicators have been able to not only support some assumptions but also question some myths about women as inclusive finance clients. For example, although women are often seen to be more ‘loyal’ FSP clients than men, findings from the Women’s World Banking network show a significant variation between institutions. For the 20 network institutions reporting data, women borrower retention is, on average, one percentage point higher than overall retention. Of course, before drawing broad conclusions, it’s important to consider these among the array of data points on the subject.

Moreover, application of the Select 5 Indicators has provided valuable insights into the benefits of institutional diversity. Moving beyond the industry standard of reporting on the percentage of women as board members, in pilot findings from the Women’s World Banking network measuring this percentage among managers, staff, and loan officers and analyzing women staff retention rates, it was shown that women loan officers not only stayed longer with the FSP, but also had higher levels of productivity.

When reviewing organizational processes or delivering any intervention—be it financial education programs or agent mobile banking—it is imperative to be able to draw on quality data that paints the full picture.

It is time to bring women into the conversation and close the gender gap in accessing both traditional and digital financial services.

Have you read?

Fifty-Eight Percent of Women in India Report Difficulty Accessing Credit, Savings, or Jobs Because of Their Gender

Why the Gender Dummy Doesn’t Speak: Explaining the Gender Gap in Financial Inclusion

Adding Gender to the Microfinance Bottom Line