The expansion of digital financial services led by the significant growth of mobile money has been key to increasing financial inclusion. And while mobile money, being typically lower cost and easier to access than a traditional bank account should benefit women, because of normative and structural constraints women face, the reality is the gender gap appears to be widening as more financial services become digitized. Indeed, according to GMSA, based on data from Global Findex 2021, the gender gap in mobile money in Sub-Saharan Africa was 17%, quite a bit higher than the overall gap in account ownership in Africa.
In Côte d’Ivoire for example, while women’s mobile money account ownership stayed steady at 30% over the period, men’s grew from 38% to 51% from 2017 to 2021 resulting in the gender gap almost doubling from 21% to 41%. In Mozambique, the gender gap increased from 37% to 43% as more men than women opened mobile money accounts providing clear evidence that gender gaps may increase as financial services are digitized.
So what can be done to ‘fix the institutions and harmful gender stereotypes’ and increase women’s digital financial inclusion and the benefits therein?
Why are women in Africa being left behind?
The first step to understanding why the digital gender gap is so large and at risk of growing is to understand what is driving the behavior of system actors. To do this, we advocate funders and facilitators take a market system approach. This approach is based on facilitating lasting change where the financial market system—its functions and players—are equipped to meet the needs of women and in turn, allowing women to participate in the system. A key tenent of the market system approach is that markets are not inclusive because people/actors don’t know how to change (capacities) and/or don’t want to change (incentives).
To understand the capacities and incentives of market actors, a detailed market system analysis is required to identify the key constraints to women’s inclusion and the root causes. Inevitably analysis shows these constraints are driven by gender norms – collective expectations of how people should behave based on gender identity. Gender norms shape women’s choices and behaviors and influence what they can and cannot do including owning mobile phones and learning how to use them, having control over household resources and financial decision making, participating in the productive economy, and traveling outside the home. The 2022 GSMA mobile gender gap report reported the gender gap in phone ownership in Sub-Saharan Africa was 14% meaning 74 million women had no access to mobile phones, a fundamental prerequisite to using digital financial services. The result is a financial system where women do not have the same access and opportunities as men.
Gender norms affect not only women’s behavior but the behavior of all actors within the financial system including financial service providers (including fintechs), regulators, policy makers, digital platform providers, agent networks, and others. These expectations and gender biases affect the design and delivery of digital financial services and impose barriers for women ranging from biases in algorithms, inappropriate product offerings, and inadequate delivery channels.
Once gender norms and their impact on system actor behaviour have been identified, the next step in the market systems approach is to develop a clear vision of how the financial market system will function better for women – that is, what would it look like if ‘institutions were reformed and harmful gender stereotypes no longer existed?’ Having this vision is fundamental to understanding how best to intervene.
How can we best intervene to support an equitable digital financial system in Africa?
Gender norms can and do change. Despite the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic presented it also accelerated DFS and led to greater acceptability of women to use DFS. However, relying on external crises to facilitate change is not enough. Financial inclusion stakeholders can and must intervene to address gender norms to build a more equitable financial system that allows women greater economic opportunities.
Interventions should, at a minimum, be “gender intentional” – aim to reduce gendered barriers in access to resources or increase the evidence base around gender gaps and barriers; and ideally, “gender transformational” – aim to transform gender norms and increase women’s agency or control over resources. This requires working with a range of stakeholders to influence their incentives and their capacity to change their behaviour to better serve women.
- Understand context-specific gender norms to identify entry points for change: Research shows the diversity of contexts to gender norms, illustrated by the study from FSD Zambia on women’s access to savings groups which identified both the norm that “husbands should be the head of household and make all financial decisions”, and also that local churches were organising meetings with couples to discuss managing finances. This presents an opportunity to use the influence of the church to effect norm change leading to the possibility of increased digital financial inclusion.
- Support capacity-building and technical assistance for financial service providers (FSPs) to increase system actors’ understandings of gender norms: Insights on how women’s financial needs, preferences and capacities are different from men’s due to gender norms and how gender-neutral approaches exclude women can be used to inform product development and delivery channels. Examples include basing credit assessments on cashflows rather than collateral as KCB Kenya did to reach more women-owned MSMES; using a hybrid tech-touch approach for on-boarding for digital products which helped Tyme Bank in South Africa increase the number of female customers, or; increasing the number of female agents as an MFI in DRC did where women were more comfortable with female agents.
- Encourage the collection and use of sex-disaggregated data: Without sex-disaggregated data, it is impossible to tell how many women are financially included and how well they are being served. For FSPs and fintechs, sex-disaggregated data is key to understanding the business opportunities women present. For policymakers, sex-disaggregated data helps to measure progress in closing the gender gap and to support evidence-based policy making as the Bank of Zambia found.
- Promote digitization of payments: Digitization of G2P payments can facilitate increased adoption of DFS if the process is designed to address specific challenges women face such as lack of identification. Similarly digitizing wage payments can allow women greater control over their income and increase the acceptability of women receiving and making digital payments.
- Leverage social media and mass media to facilitate change in behaviour of gatekeepers: Channels including TV, radio, community theatre, posters, and videos are important mediums for raising awareness of gender norms and showing characters that deviate from expectations. Shamba Shape Up, a TV series in Kenya has financial literacy modules promoting the benefits of joint decision making. A recent evaluation determined this had led to norm change.
These are but a few examples of the many ways addressing gender norms can contribute to increasing women’s ability to access, use and benefit from digital financial services in Africa. Without acknowledging the importance of gender norms, we will not succeed in creating a more equitable financial system.
The Africa Digital Financial Inclusion Facility (ADFI) — a partnership between the African Development Bank, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Agence Française de Développement, the governments of France and Luxembourg and the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi) — is mobilizing to support many of these crucial objectives and seeking further partnerships to scale up initiatives to meet its goal. A multi-donor partnership with the intention of disbursing $400 million in grant funding to support financial inclusion by 2030, ADFI has a goal to increase access to and use of quality digital financial services across Africa, particularly for women. To achieve this goal, ADFI mainstreams gender across all its work with 60% of its investment committed to gender intentional initiatives and 15% to gender transformational activity.
 GSMA | Findings from Findex: Mobile money is driving financial inclusion for women, but more work needs to be done | Mobile for Development
 Normative Constraints to Women’s Financial Inclusion: What We Know and What We Need to Know | Center for Financial Inclusion
 Unpublished research from FSD Zambia
 Report: Empowering MSMEs: Creating a Better Banking Experience for Women-Led Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises in Kenya - Women's World Banking (womensworldbanking.org)
 Within Reach: How Digital Wages That Work for Women Can Support Bangladesh’s Economic Future | Reports | Sustainable Business Network and Consultancy | BSR