IDEO.org and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation launched Women and Money—a two-year program across six countries—to uncover some of the systemic barriers and opportunities low-income, rural women face in relation to digital financial services (DFS), and to test bold and targeted solutions.
Today, cash-in and cash-out (CICO) services help connect physical and digital financial behaviors. In addition to being a moment to transact, CICO can also serve as a bridge to a broader set of digital tools and services, and is therefore a crucial part of women’s economic empowerment. While our research started by looking narrowly at the moment of CICO, the reality is that the barriers that women face in accessing and using DFS also exist beyond his touchpoint. If women are going to become financial decision-makers in their homes, we cannot design in terms of siloed transactions.
In eight months, we conducted research with 400 people in rural Bangladesh, India, Northern Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Tanzania. Across all six contexts, society does not see it as women’s right or role to make financial decisions. Money is ultimately the domain of men. The ecosystem of digital financial tools that surround many low-income women are designed for skills and resources they do not have (e.g., literacy, numeracy, mobility, and digital proficiency). Women do not perceive these tools as relevant to their lives; in many cases, the barriers to entry and use are so great that the only thing left for women to assume is that DFS is not meant for them.
Despite the societal and service barriers, and against all odds, women exert herculean efforts to budget and save for their families. They match household income with upcoming needs, keep money stashed away in case of emergencies, and join savings groups to build resilience. Savings groups were present across contexts as the only financial service that is uniquely and unapologetically tailored to women. Women felt they could learn, save, plan, be held accountable, and support each other while building community.
However, none of these financial actions are trumpeted as savings behaviors nor as vital to the financial health of their families. Broadly, women are viewed as the stewards of small, daily expenses, while men reserve the privilege to make bigger financial decisions.
Together with our data science partners at DrivenData and our gender experts at Kore Global, and building off of previous definitions (1), we worked to articulate and measure women’s economic empowerment. The composite score we created—leveraging quantitative household survey questions—measures her influence over financial decision making, her likelihood to voice disagreement, and her ability to control how her own money is spent or saved. We were then able to start identifying the levers that matter most for economic empowerment. Quantitative analysis showed, for example, that the saving behaviors women display are only associated with small gains in economic empowerment.
Where large gains can be made is around increased income generation in the household—this is the most significant contributor to greater economic control. To create an enabling environment, personal aspirations, community support, and societal opportunities must align. Does she see herself as an earner? Does her family and her society accept her as an earner? Does she have the opportunities to earn? Yet, in many contexts, having to step into financial power isn’t socially desirable or celebrated. In fact, often the women who do so do it because of some sort of crisis in their life, not out of choice. In South Asian contexts in particular, it is a sign of status for women not to work. Only 16% of rural women were employed in South Asian contexts compared to 75% of rural men. Meanwhile, in the African contexts, 59% of rural women were employed last year compared to 69% of rural men. Even for them, it is still seen as improper or threatening for women to earn too much. In Nigeria, some of the working women go so far as to keep their employment a secret in order to save face for their husbands. How might we begin to see a shift in the internal and external conditions that make increased income generation possible?
The bold women who do carve uncharted financial paths—the savings group leaders, earners, agents, and entrepreneurs—set examples of new possibilities for their peers. In Tanzania, for example, we saw a spring of entrepreneurship amongst women; women choose work that they have seen someone else do and there’s a thirst for business education, particularly from women like them. These powerful role models can change the narrative of what is possible for women in their community.
Another opportunity for narrative shift is the moments in women’s lives when rigid gender norms have the potential to relax, making room for change. Marriage, childbirth, and even crises are ripe moments to design around. They’re latent with potential to shift financial agency in: how work is divided, money is earned, and decisions are made. Following our research, we will enter a prototyping phase, where we will launch and test tools that help women flex their financial role in moments of transition.
Across contexts, current financial systems reinforce the message that women don’t belong; they lack the tangibility, community, and skills women leverage in their day to day. To support women’s economic empowerment, we must be deliberate and specific about the centrality of women and gender sensitivity in our solutions. We must design for women and constantly seek their feedback. Our designs should incorporate the best of her existing workarounds, as well as the financial services, gatekeepers, and institutions around her. To learn about the next stages of the Women and Money project and explore more of our insights, you can follow along here.
(1) Glennerster, Walsh, Diaz-Martin JPAL, Data2X, Buvinic and Furst-Nichols UN Foundation and Exxon Mobil,