At first, the connection between social and gender norms and financial inclusion may not seem obvious. What do invisible rules about household cooking responsibilities, who makes big household expenditures, or attitudes toward unmarried men and women have to do with financial services?

A lot!

Norms matter because they determine behaviors and control over household resources, which shape demand for financial services. The reasons a woman might not take up mobile money or why a man expects to be his households’ sole provider are often driven by unspoken expectations. While care responsibilities and gender expectations may not seem related to banking or mobile money, they are integral. The cost to women to find childcare to attend a skills training, savings group, or take up salaried employment is often so great that she forgoes the experience, which reinforces her market exclusion and forces her to seek flexible and unpredictable income elsewhere.

The result is that the types of financial services she can engage with do not necessarily allow for an accumulation of wealth, access to expanded credit, or exposure to new skills. Microfinance and informal savings groups do offer women flexible financial services, but unless these services lead to or are linked with formal financial services, low-income women will remain on the margins of economic prosperity.

Grace and Emmanuel

To illustrate this point, we created two characters – Grace and Emmanuel – to draw clear and direct connections between the gender norms they both live with and what they mean for their economic livelihoods and demand for financial services.

Grace and her husband, Emmanuel, run a small business making clay pots and cups for local tea vendors. They both work hard to support the business, but Grace has a less visible role than Emmanuel. Women in their community are expected to stay home and look after the family, while men are seen as the primary breadwinners and decision-makers. This is reflected in their economic roles, too. Grace shapes and molds the cups that they sell, which she can do while watching her youngest child and looking after her elderly mother at home. Emmanuel purchases supplies at the market, arranges sales with customers by mobile phone, and handles all transactions.

Every week, Grace receives money from Emmanuel, but she doesn’t have an idea of how much they’ve sold that week or how much money the business makes. She budgets for household expenses and tries to save money with her village savings group but doesn’t often have much to deposit. When their son fell ill, she had to withdraw all her savings and take a loan from a microfinance bank to cover the cost because her husband told her there was no money for the treatment. She doesn’t know where the business’ income goes, and she worries about money for the family. She’d like to expand their business by selling fried bread, but Emmanuel and his mother don’t think she would be able to work in the market and take care of the children, household duties, and cooking.

Connection to Financial Inclusion

This story serves as an oversimplified archetype to describe the patriarchal gender norms that constrain many women’s economic behaviors and choices. Grace’s financial and digital capability is limited by the fact that she has always been expected to fill the role of caretaker. Normative attitudes and beliefs about her primary role constrain her access to mobile technology and her decision-making role within her home and business. She is handed an amount of money that Emmanuel thinks she needs to cover household expenses and has no other income sources large or regular enough to justify having her own bank account, since her petty cash would not even cover the fees.

As the decider and provider, Emmanuel needs a phone to transact, a mobile wallet to receive payments, and will be the one to decide if they expand the business and may need a loan. He would also be the one that qualifies more easily because of his mobile money data trail. Grace is instrumental to the family’s business but rendered economically invisible because at no point are her economic contributions seen or remunerated.

Financial service providers typically design products for the behaviors they can see. Grace’s invisible labor and experience — as well as her use of informal financial services – leave her with little to no credit history or assets. To a financial institution, lending to Grace is seen as risky. Norms limiting her access to mobile technology can leave alternative sources of financial services, such as fintechs that rely on digital data trails for credit decisions, out of reach.

In this way, institutions themselves perpetuate and reinforce social and gender norms through product decisions, delivery channels, and policies that require tangible assets in the form of collateral or state-issued IDs to complete KYC documents.

Similarly, mobile money fees, products designed for individual use when phones are often shared assets, and digital financial services that do not account for intra-household decision-making asymmetries are equally constraining. These conditions further marginalize Grace – not out of malice, but because these policies and institutions were not designed with her in mind.

However, norms can and do change. For example, research in India offered women the opportunity to take jobs as day laborers and deposited wages into bank accounts in their names to measure perceptions of both men and women toward work. While men were significantly more likely to prioritize community respect over all other priorities, when they saw that they had overestimated social sanctions resulting from their wives working, they shifted their attitudes about women working.

Institutions can be part of this change, too, driving access and product design to reach women. CARE Uganda’s digital sub-wallet, for example, was designed with women’s spending patterns in mind and more providers are considering the role of gatekeepers with couple and family engagement activities.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The good news is that inclusive finance stakeholders are increasingly recognizing the role of social norms in influencing the outcomes experienced by women – both positively and negatively. Emerging trends across the field point to new approaches to financial services, such as innovations in product design that intentionally account for how women manage and spend money, leveraging community role models to shift attitudes and increase awareness of inequality embedded in collectively held beliefs, and engaging men as critical champions for change. Yet more must be done across the financial system to remove gender-blind processes, policies, and laws, and to measure progress using sex-disaggregated data and clear impact metrics.

We also need to grapple with who bears responsibility for integrating norms into private and public interventions. Providers, donors, governments, and investors all have roles to play in understanding and addressing gender discrimination, and more, research is needed to understand, test, and define successful approaches to gender-intelligent financial services. A financial sector aimed at understanding and improving women’s lives contributes significantly toward women’s economic empowerment, but without gender norm transformation, it is unlikely that women’s financial inclusion will lead to meaningful inclusion and empowerment.

Alex Kessler

Former Research Manager

With a background in journalism and digital media analytics, Alex Kessler played a leading role in CFI’s research and policy work on advancing responsible data practices for inclusive finance and addressing the barriers to women’s financial inclusion. Alex joined CFI in 2017, originally focused on consumer protection and digital finance. In her previous role at Monitor 360 (now Protagonist Technologies), a digital communications consultancy, Alex advised on product development and led strategy engagements for clients in the government, foundation, and corporate sectors. From 2010 to 2013, Alex served as the international editor for The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut, Lebanon, where she also reported on Middle East politics and Lebanese civil society. More recently, Alex led projects examining the barriers to entrepreneurship in the Middle East for the Wamda Research Lab and analyzed Rwanda’s regulatory environment for financial inclusion for The Economist Intelligence Unit. Alex holds a master’s from The Fletcher School at Tufts University, and a bachelor’s in international relations from Tufts.

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.

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