A household budget, saving for a business investment, or managing an unforeseen emergency can cause stress in the most adept household, let alone those experiencing the vulnerability and volatility of poverty. Learning to navigate financial systems and products is a long-term endeavor.

Building financial capability — that is, the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors needed to make sound financial decisions to support well-being — can take time and creativity. The ultimate goal is to equip all people with the skills to navigate financial services safely and effectively and allow them to accrue their benefits. For poor and rural communities, this can mean increasing resiliency and reducing exposure to economic shocks, improving income growth and investment, and promoting more sustainable and equitable development. And for women, in particular, the accrued benefits can mean navigating financial choices with confidence, seeing themselves — and being seen — as financial clients, and accessing and using technology with ease.

While overall progress has been made in advancing financial inclusion, progress for women continues to lag. Globally, male ownership is likely to be higher than female ownership of accounts, with a gap of nearly 7 percent, which has persisted despite the overall rise in account ownership. The gender gap is much worse in some countries, where social norms govern financial access and decision-making. For instance, in Pakistan, while account ownership doubled since 2011, most of the growth was driven by accounts owned by men. Similarly, in Ethiopia, account ownership by men increased by roughly twice the size of the increase among women since 2014.

We must invest in building women’s financial capability to close this gap and make meaningful progress in women’s access to and usage of financial services. Doing so will require a deeper understanding of the economic and social constraints women face in accessing financial services. Yet existing tools for building financial capability have a mixed track record and there is scarce evidence on which approaches and delivery channels are likely to produce lasting impact.

This publication examines how best to share information, build capability, and enable lasting behavior change in a context in which women may have limited say in their own economic choices or require additional support or flexibility to overcome trust and care responsibilities. We examine the characteristics and success of existing approaches to building women’s financial capability and find a gap in programming that sufficiently accounts for women’s preferences, which are largely influenced by gendered social norms.

Readers of this report will come away with:

  • A stronger understanding of the role of gender norms that constrain women’s financial capability
  • An overview of current women’s financial capability initiatives, including classroom-based initiatives, technology-led financial education, and high-touch financial capability approaches
  • Recommendations on how to ensure women are meaningfully and successfully engaged with financial services.


Julia Arnold


An expert in gender and financial inclusion, Julia Arnold serves as a consultant for CFI. From 2020-2022, she worked as CFI’s Senior Director of Gender and Financial Inclusion. Julia has more than 12 years of experience in inclusive finance, leading implementation and research projects across a range of customer- and provider-focused topics such as digital financial inclusion, financial capability, and microsavings. Julia brings an understanding of the enabling environment needed to catalyze real change for women’s economic lives, as well as a deep understanding of the microeconomic constraints to women’s empowerment. Prior to CFI, Julia was Financial Inclusion and Livelihood Specialist at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) where she led mixed-methods research and primary data collection for evaluations and gender analyses, as well as curriculum development for youth and adults, focused on household dynamics and livelihoods. Before this, she was a consultant working with a diverse range of clients such as MetLife Foundation, CGAP, the World Bank, CFI, and others. Julia holds a master’s degree in international development from American University in Washington, DC.

Jayshree Venkatesan

Senior Research Director, Consumer Protection & Responsible Finance

Jayshree leads research on fintechs, platforms, and other DFS providers to understand their incentives, practices, and how/if they serve low-income consumers and contribute to advocacy on consumer protection and other policy priorities for inclusive finance and co-leads the development of influence strategies and campaigns with the communications team.

Jayshree joins CFI after working for eight years as an independent global consultant to several partners including CGAP, World Bank, JICA, and ITAD. As a consultant, Jayshree worked on customer-centric business models and challenges faced by customers in accessing and using financial services. From 2009 to 2013, she was part of the founding team at IFMR Trust (now Dvara Trust), where she led a mezzanine fund that invested in microfinance institutions in India.

Jayshree is a senior policy fellow at the Leir Institute housed within the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where she works on challenges faced by vulnerable segments such as migrants/refugees in accessing financial services. In 2014, Jayshree was awarded the Chevening fellowship for leadership by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, UK. Jayshree earned an MA in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, an MBA from MDI Gurgaon (India), and a Bachelor’s in mathematics from Mumbai University, graduating at the top of her class.

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