January 19, 2017 by Bobbi Gray
Many people consider the book, Men are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, by Dr. John Gray a classic. While it describes how men and women can better understand and relate to each other, it starts from the premise that men and women are simply from different planets. We don’t think or behave alike. We have different expectations for a relationship. But there are bridges that can bring us together—if we can locate and cross them effectively.
The idea that men and women come from separate planets has also affected the microfinance sector, driving product design variations for decades. Men need large loans for agricultural investment. Women need small loans for microbusinesses. Men can easily travel to branch offices; women face mobility constraints. In addition to mobility, other cultural and gender barriers limit women’s access to and use of financial services.
The sector has tended to find work-arounds to enable women’s success, while being sensitive to cultural norms. We’ve built credit and savings groups for women. We work to understand their needs and we try to meet them with thoughtful financial, health, agricultural and education services. We design digital financial services that help women more easily access and protect their own money. We interview men to validate the barriers we’ve identified; we may even go so far as to convince men, husbands, and male community leaders that women engaging in our services is good for them, too. This is all with good intention and often backed with research.
However, identifying the different needs of men and women for different types of products and services is alone not transformative. As long as we continue to view men and women as simply individual actors within the financial sector, we will likely fail to assist in lifting millions of households out of poverty. Why? If men are part of the “problem” for women’s access to and use of services—whether intentionally or un-intentionally—then they also have to be part of the solution. The same can be true of any gatekeeper, such as a mother-in-law or other family members who uphold traditional norms.
A few cases in point. In India, we began to test our assumptions about how mobile technology could increase active use of financial services and overcome the restrictions to travel many rural women face. Though there is near-global enthusiasm for use of the mobile phone to deliver services to remote and rural communities, we found that women actually have limited access to and lack literacy with mobile phones. Women often have to rely on others, particularly their husbands, to help them use the phone. This suggests that digital financial services could include strategies to more directly engage husbands in efforts to improve mobile phone literacy and ownership among women as a means to maximize women’s use of digital financial services.
In Burkina Faso, we have been working with local partners to build savings groups as an entry point for women to access formal financial services. We are using mobile technology to link these groups to formal savings accounts. In this way, credit unions and larger microfinance institutions can reach poorer women who are “unbanked” or have no other access to formal financial services.
However, one of our local partners found that it was easier to build women’s savings groups if men were first invited to build their own. Indeed, men were just as interested as women in savings groups and linking to financial services. In addition, working with the men’s groups made it easier for our financial services partner to expand its outreach to women.
Several years back, through a randomized control trial in Benin, we provided health education to clients of village banks. We then compared health knowledge and behaviors among women-only and mixed-gender village banks. We found that women-only groups experienced more social capital—stronger relationships and trust—compared to the mixed-gender groups, but women in mixed-gender groups were better able to treat childhood illnesses. Anecdotally, we learned that once the men were convinced of the value of the new information, they became vocal advocates for the changes needed, creating a more hospitable environment for women to make changes at home.
Like the Burkina Faso example above, when men knew they could join the mixed-gender groups, they were more comfortable and trusting of the groups, their products and services. When included, men were more likely to allow their wives to join, or to participate in their place.
All these examples point to the difficulty of designing and implementing gender-transformative programs, products and services. There are trade-offs when it comes to changing cultural and gender norms. Where we may gain in improving access to financial services or improved health knowledge and behaviors when men are involved, women may lose the special places they need to come together and find and practice their voice among their peers.
As Dr. John Gray states, “The secret of forming a successful relationship is for both partners to win.”
This indeed is our challenge. We have to find ways for resource-poor women—and men—to win. The more closely we work with our local partners, and listen and learn from the women and men on the ground, the more surely financial inclusion will expand to the benefit of both.
Bobbi Gray is Research Director at Grameen Foundation