Photo caption: Macaria, a customer of Accion partner BancoSol, sells personal care items at her market stall in El Alto, Bolivia

Despite progress toward gender equality in recent years, women remain disproportionately impacted by poverty, economic instability, and discrimination. Accion Advisory‘s Liza Guzmán, Vice President of Customer Strategy and Gender Lead, shares her thoughts on accelerating women’s economic empowerment through financial inclusion.

What do you believe are the biggest challenges holding women back from seizing economic opportunities today? 

The main barriers holding women back are invisible — the prevalent social norms that influence the way we interact with each other. Whether conscious or unconscious, these societal attitudes and stereotypes impede women from reaching their potential.

Many issues stem from women’s lack of economic autonomy. In many countries, it’s very difficult for women to own land or assets. It’s also very difficult for women to access capital to start businesses and seize other opportunities to earn their own income. When someone is unable to be financially autonomous, it is really hard for them to have agency and thrive.

Another major challenge is the imbalance in the care economy and the high levels of unpaid domestic work that women shoulder. We see the burden of responsibility for childcare and care of older relatives disproportionately falling to women all over the world. Unpaid care and domestic work determine how women behave and the opportunities they can pursue in terms of jobs, income, leadership roles, and more.

There’s also the concerning reality that gender-based violence remains a serious threat to women and girls, including both physical violence and cyber harassment. We need to find more effective initiatives to fight gender-based violence, especially for low-income communities where this is worse. When a woman suffers from violence, she loses confidence and agency. That impedes her in all her roles, as a woman working, as an entrepreneur, as a mother.

Finally, women have fewer opportunities to hold leadership positions. Because of that, we’re unable to express our ideas or participate in decision-making. The world has been designed for men because men have been the leaders in all industries, not just the financial sector. Not only are men overrepresented in leadership roles, but the data used across all industries is primarily sourced from men.

Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of work to do.

How can inclusive, responsible financial solutions close gaps for women, particularly low-income women? 

Economic security and financial independence are key to women’s autonomy and agency in society. When women can manage our own money, it gives us power, the possibility to make our own decisions, and a voice. I believe that’s true everywhere, but especially for low-income countries.

When women can manage our own money, it gives us power, the possibility to make our own decisions, and a voice.

Financial security starts with the basics, which is savings. Savings are especially important for women because when a woman can save money in a safe and convenient place, she reduces her vulnerability to shocks. She will be more secure and more satisfied with her life because she can make decisions and she’s not dependent on anyone. It’s not just about the savings account; it’s about the mindset change that occurs when you feel less vulnerable and more resilient and what that implies for a woman’s self-perception and understanding of herself.

Second, about 68 percent of women-led SMEs are still underserved today, according to the IFC. Women-owned small and medium enterprises face an estimated credit gap of $1.4 to $1.7 trillion. When a woman can access responsible capital and use that money how she wants, she’ll be able to invest in her business, invest in her family, make her own decisions, and prosper. Capital is crucial.

And finally, based on our experience, we’re convinced that digital financial services are incredibly transformative for women. Time scarcity is an issue because women juggle so many activities. The ability to quickly access your savings account balances and pay through your mobile app, without mobilizing yourself to go to a banking agent or visit a branch, is huge — especially in rural communities where sometimes it can take hours to go to a bank.

Digital access to and usage of responsible financial services can ensure that women have better financial health, increased resilience to shocks, greater security, and more agency in their lives.

What is Accion’s approach to expanding access and designing financial services specifically for women and women-led businesses? 

Accion is committed to accelerating women’s economic empowerment through financial inclusion. We’re intentional about ensuring everyone has the same access to financial services and capital.

In our investment strategies, we’ve applied a gender lens to our theory of change. We’re dedicated to ensuring that women founders have the same access to capital and opportunities that support their progress with whatever company, startup, or initiative they’re building. Accion is now a member of 2X Global, a leading network driving change in the finance industry by promoting gender-smart investments and ultimately unlocking capital for businesses led by and serving women.

In our advisory work, we support financial services providers in transitioning from gender-neutral to gender-intentional organizations, both externally with their clients and internally with their employees. Accion Advisory works directly with financial services providers to help providers advance economic opportunities for women. We focus on four areas of work to achieve this:

  1. We’re ensuring that our partners have a woman-centered design process and methodology, meaning they have the proper methodology in place to conduct market research and understand women customers’ needs and behaviors. Providers must consider the social context women live in so they can design products that address potential barriers and avoid inadvertently discriminating against women customers.
  2. We support institutions in taking a gender-disaggregated approach to data collection and usage. We have seen that very few institutions collect data categorized by gender, which means decisions may be biased because historical data tends to reflect primarily men´s behaviors, as they have been the major users in the past.
  3. We have long prioritized capacity building for women. We believe capacity building is not only about having the best-designed financial products and services. We also need to proactively develop capacities — digital, financial, and business skills — and build confidence so women feel ready, empowered, and equipped to use products responsibly.
  4. And lastly, we must take an ecosystem approach because we believe that gender gaps cannot be solved with one solution. We know that women face many other constraints beyond financial exclusion, like limited access to healthcare and childcare, and lack of self-confidence, safety, and security. That’s why we seek to build comprehensive products that meet financial needs while meeting other needs – such as tailored financial products that provide access to time-saving energy solutions.

Digital financial tools have grown significantly in recent years. What innovations and digital solutions excite you most when you think about the future of women’s economic empowerment?

Like many others in our industry, I’m so excited to see what we can do with artificial intelligence. I also continue to be energized by the potential of using data to correct gender imbalances. We have been designing a world for men, and we need to change that. We need to make sure that the data we use to create new digital innovations is not biased from the start. When AI tools and algorithms are biased, they perpetuate gender discrimination.

We need to make sure that the data we use to create new digital innovations is not biased from the start.

We’ve also seen how digital tools provide us with more opportunities to connect. I believe that many women have been isolated because we’re very busy with multiple responsibilities, and many women, especially low-income women, have no access to information or education. But now, women have access to more. Now, women can see themselves as members of their community and as citizens of the world and understand their rights and value in society.

What drives your passion for women’s economic empowerment?

I founded a social impact foundation before joining Accion and focused my work on empowering children in impoverished areas of Bogotá, Colombia. Every weekend, I visited their homes and spoke with their mothers to understand their lives. I met so many women who would wake up at four in the morning to prepare meals for their whole family, take their kids to school, and then travel one to two hours to work. Once they returned home after a full day of work, they did all the cooking and cleaning for the household. It was shocking to see how hard they were working, doing everything for their families, and were unrecognized and undervalued for that.

I saw how the isolation they experienced and limited access to information led to diminished hope for a better future. I observed similar beliefs in the girls from these communities who felt their only option in life was to become mothers as quickly as they could and would quit school. It was disheartening to see that, especially when I met such talented, brilliant girls. Every time I need to find a boost to keep going, I remember these children and women I met and how we must open opportunities for underserved people to have a brighter future.

Learn more about how financial services designed specifically for women and women-led businesses can close gaps in access and usage and benefit families, communities, and the economy.

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