Want to fix the financial inclusion gender gap? Ask better questions

We must identify underlying causes of gendered financial exclusion to improve financial services for women

As I worked on the latest update to the World Bank’s Global Findex database, I was pleased to see some significant progress in account ownership and digital finance. However, I was disheartened — if not surprised ­— to find that we’re still stuck in 2011 when it comes to the stubborn gender gap in financial services.

Closing the gender gap remains the grand prize for financial inclusion advocates — a truly inclusive financial system should break down barriers and bring opportunities to all people. But women in developing countries are still 9 percentage points less likely than men to have an account. That gap has not improved since the Findex began in 2011, and it’s just an average — scores are even worse in some countries. For instance, in Pakistan, men are five times as likely as women to have an account.

Why are women left out to a greater degree than men? One reason is there’s also a persistent digital divide when it comes to access to technology. According to the Gallup World Poll survey, Men are 10 percentage points more likely than women to report owning a phone. In Egypt, Ethiopia, and India, men are 20 percentage points more likely than women to have their own phone.

We need to better identify the underlying causes of digital exclusion, such as social norms. For example, it may not be acceptable for women to give their phone numbers to male bank agents — meaning women are missing out on the opportunities of mobile money accounts.

But it’s not just technology — we need more data on how women experience financial inclusion broadly, and how social norms may keep women excluded from the financial system. We’d be in a better position to close the gender gap if we had more data. I’d like to see more research exploring how and if the gender of agents influences financial inclusion. Would more female mobile and merchant agents mean more financial access and activity? It would be good to know one way or the other.

I’m also interested in whether we can establish a link between electronic wage payments and higher productivity. This relationship could affect the financial inclusion gender gap: the World Bank is starting new work with tea pluckers in Sri Lanka. In the past, many of these women’s husbands might have claimed their salaries. I’d like to know if a woman receives payments into her own account, and if she gets the full pay-off for her labor, will she work harder? Will she be more productive? Will job retention at her employer increase? These questions represent an exciting new road of research to motivate the private sector to expand financial inclusion and digital payments, particularly for women.

We need more information. We know that inclusive financial services can help women gain more autonomy; moreover, by supporting women, we might also catalyze social and economic progress. But we need to know more about how and why women use or are prevented from accessing financial services to shape our efforts going forward. I hope we begin asking these questions and pursuing real answers soon.

Sign up to receive emails