Financial services play an important contributing role to women’s economic empowerment. Women who have access to bank accounts, savings mechanisms, and other financial services may be better able to control their earnings and undertake personal and productive expenditures. They may also be able to make choices about their time and their autonomy over decision-making, ranging from employment to marriage to the use of contraception. Financial services may also contribute to non-economic benefits such as increased self-efficacy and self-worth, confidence, and increased solidarity within a woman’s network. But many of these potential benefits are only achievable if women are able to maintain control over resources.

What are the mechanisms to ensure that women retain control over resources? Financial services design and delivery plays a part. But even more important is the need to understand and address the social and gender norms that influence women’s participation in the economy and the financial system.

Social and gender norms are key determinants of behaviors and roles. Social norms are the implicit and informal rules, attitudes, behaviors, and values that the majority accept and follow. Gender norms are a subset of social norms that pertain to how people of a particular gender are expected to behave. Gender norms can be seen in the division of labor and allocation of resources within and without a household, as well as in the expectations placed on men and women, which foster the development of different abilities, attitudes, and desires. For everyone, norms are “like invisible ‘guard rails’ that shape and narrow people’s thinking, behaviors, and opportunities. [N]orms often show up as a kind of negative power, as absence rather than presence: doors that just didn’t open, choices that couldn’t be made, opportunities that just seemed out of reach.” Norms matter because they determine behaviors and control over household resources, which shape demand for financial services.

This paper reviews the emerging evidence on social and gender norms and financial inclusion. Norms are increasingly recognized as a key constraint to women’s financial inclusion — one that may help explain the persistent gender gaps in bank account and, in some regions, mobile money ownership, as well as the fact that progress toward gender equality is slowing globally. It is time to move away from gender-blind or gender-aware approaches to financial services toward a gender-transformative approach that explicitly creates gender-equal financial systems by embedding pathways for engagement on equal terms.

Without gender norm transformation, it is unlikely that women’s financial inclusion will lead to meaningful economic empowerment. However, social and gender norms are complex, hyper-local, and difficult to measure. As such, there is no one “right” way to assess or change norms, though more evidence is needed to identify whether global lessons and approaches can lead to sustainable, systemic change.

This paper brings together the evidence of what is known on norms and financial inclusion and uses cases to demonstrate aspects of and approaches to addressing discriminatory norms throughout the financial system. It also highlights many remaining areas for further inquiry on norms and financial services that would enable improved women’s economic empowerment.


Authors

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

Consultant

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.

Mayada El-Zoghbi

Former Managing Director

A veteran and leader in financial inclusion, Mayada El-Zoghbi served as CFI’s Managing Director from September 2019 – May 2023. Mayada also worked as Lead for Strategy, Research & Development for CGAP, where she led CGAP’s strategy development and its research on women’s financial inclusion, financial services in crisis environments, and other emerging topics. Prior to this, she managed CGAP’s work with the donor and investor community-based in Paris, France. From 2002 to 2009, Mayada founded and managed a development consulting firm. She has also led numerous technical assistance, evaluation, and research assignments, served as a research director for a USAID initiative, and lectured at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. Mayada started her career working with several non-profit organizations establishing inclusive financial institutions in the Palestinian Territories, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Kosovo.

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