What Would Women-First Digital Financial Services Look Like?

Designing to increase women’s voice, influence, and control of money.

Over the past year, we’ve partnered with The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to better understand the unique opportunities and barriers women face in accessing financial services. Specifically, we focused on digital financial services (DFS) and the ease of transactions (sometimes referred to as cash-in and cash-out, or CICO).

We spoke to 250 women across six countries: Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Tanzania—partnering with data scientists, behavioral scientists, and gender experts to strengthen our design research. In each context, we heard stories of women who—despite being systematically cast to the sidelines—have engineered ingenious workarounds to get by. And although we started out focusing on CICO, the reality is that if we want women to become economically empowered, designing only for the transaction moments is not enough.

Our research helped us understand the barriers women face and also helped us see a pathway for women to gain greater economic power—increasing confidence and control of their money and lives. Below are three opportunities to reimagine financial services in a way that supports women's economic empowerment. Each is paired with an illustrative concept—an example of how this opportunity could come to life in the near future. Over the next months, we'll be prototyping these and other concepts, seeking solutions that drive measurable change in women's lives.

1. Recognize and amplify her existing financial behaviors.

    Across all six contexts, women exert herculean efforts to budget and save for their families—planning, pinching, and stretching every cent their families have. For example, we saw women across contexts save a little on the side for emergencies, mostly in cash and stashed away in a secret spot at home. Many women were also part of savings groups where they plan, save, are held accountable, and support each other while building community. Yet, society doesn’t recognize any of these behaviors as critical to the financial health of her and her family.

    Financial services are designed for skills, resources, and access she often doesn’t have—they’re for the mobile, literate, numerate, banked, and in the case of digital financial services, tech savvy. But instead of testing her, these services should help her bounce back when she struggles or the system fails her. What if we incorporated the best of her existing workarounds—tangibility, iconography, trusted guides, and places she frequents—to elevate her financial behaviors and create new learning opportunities?

    Concept: POCKETPOWER

    Translate the confidence and consistency she feels in savings groups into financial decision-making at home.

    Preloaded on her phone and powered by AI and voice technology, PocketPower helps her manage her household budget, identify savings goals, and extend her community beyond in-person savings groups. Visual cues make it easy to track accounting and share her decision-making process with her family, increasing the visibility of her financial prowess.

    PocketPower also helps build voice and influence in financial decisions. A group chat feature helps her stay connected to other women in between meetings. Together with peers, women can prepare for hard conversations, offer real-time coaching advice to each other, and enter challenges such as a 30-day “digitally fit” game to get more confident in using their phones and mobile money. They’re met with daily inspiration, tips, and motivation to get strong together.

    2. Help her take leaps when the rules relax.

    There are key inflection points—moving homes, marriage, the birth of a child, and crises—when gender norms have the potential to relax. These moments are opportunities to increase her financial influence and control as well as spark discussions about existing norms. These narrow windows of time are ripe for design—if we leverage them. By partnering with relevant community-based organizations—like health organizations and religious institutions—we can create more holistic solutions that support her to make gains in these critical moments.

    Concept: THE NEWLYWED NESTEGG

    Use the moment of marriage to promote shared financial power and decision-making.

    Marriage is a moment of transition. Nestegg pairs coaching and tools to promote the importance of shared financial power. Financial counselors meet with newlyweds, share stories of couples like them, help them set financial goals, and offer financial services geared toward young couples (e.g., individual mobile money accounts, joint savings accounts, household budgeting tools, and guides for joint decision-making). Using joint savings to achieve shared goals unlocks benefits for the couple, including better interest rates on loans and deals on airtime. This could be an add-on to existing premarital counseling offered through religious institutions.

    3. Supercharge her allies and guides.

    Many women leverage familiar proxies and guides to access services and fill the gaps in her financial and digital access. Yet, when she leans on these family members, neighbors, and agents, society views it as a crutch. We believe there’s an opportunity to build tools and services that help these allies better guide, teach, and support women—amplifying her control, power, and learning with each interaction.

    Concept: THE BOSS & HER SQUAD

    Enable her trusted proxies to guide, teach, and even transact while keeping her in control

    She has a “boss” banking account where she can assign secondary users, allowing her to add trusted proxies. These secondary users can transact mobile money on her behalf, depositing, withdrawing, and (in some instances) correct mistakes. Secondary users are on-boarded and voice verified alongside her, so they can teach and upskill the boss. Whenever the “boss” authorizes a specific transaction for a set amount of time, she receives updates at every step of the process: when her family member is authorized at an agent shop, when the transaction is complete, and they’re on the way back. Location settings also confirm where her proxy is during these transactions. But to keep her boss account active, she needs to pass an upskilling curriculum—constantly learning along the way.

    Want to learn more about the women we met and how to design for their power? Download a detailed report here, released this week at the Women's World Banking conference in Singapore.

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