Gender-Blind or Gender-Aware?

Social Performance Management and Women’s Financial Inclusion

Article prepared by SPTF


From our earliest days, CERISE + SPTF has stressed a simple message. Social performance management is nothing more—but also nothing less—than a way of doing business that puts customers at the center. The trick, of course, is that doing business this way requires you to know your customers well. To design and deliver financial products that can help your customers achieve their goals, you must know what those goals are. And you must know the constraints, competing demands, and other life circumstances that come into play. Those circumstances can be different, sometimes radically so, for men versus women customers.

So as we acknowledge Women’s History Month, and the 45th anniversary of International Women’s Day (8th March), it is worth remembering that “gender blind” products and policies will end up leaving women behind. CERISE + SPTF advocate instead a “gender aware” approach, one that applies an enterprise-wide gender lens to both the customer experience and to internal operations.

Last month we released the updated Universal Standards for Social and Environmental Performance Management (“Universal Standards 3.0”). Along with other updates and enhancements, the new third edition of the Universal Standards increases the number of indicators focused on women. For example, because women can face stresses both at the household and at the personal level from the use of financial services, the section on Outcomes now states that financial service providers should have an intentional strategy for avoiding negative consequences for clients, and for monitoring outcomes, both positive and negative, for clients and their households. The section on Product Design emphasizes the importance of researching which obstacles women face, and then using that information to inform product terms, conditions, and delivery channels so that they meet women’s needs.

Beyond the customer-facing elements, the Universal Standards 3.0 provides guidance to financial service providers on their business practices. CERISE+ SPTF believe that for a financial service provider to be the best place for a woman customer, it must also be the best place for a woman to work. In some cultural contexts, women customers can only transact with women staffers; even when that is not the case, women may prefer to deal with other women. And of course, in addition to creating a better experience for women customers, gender equity in the workplace is its own goal. Along with verifying that men and women receive equal pay for equal work, and equal access to opportunities for training and promotions, the Universal Standards 3.0 include recommendations for sex-disaggregated monitoring of employee turnover and employee satisfaction surveys. If women are more likely to quit than men, it’s important to know that, and to find out why. It is also important to disaggregate workforce data not only by sex but by rank. It may look good, for example, to have a workforce that is half women—but not if all of them are in clerical positions while all the leadership positions are held by men.

Digital financial services, or DFS, are a major focus area for CERISE + SPTF this year. Digital technologies, especially mobile phones, have played an indispensable role in advancing financial inclusion. But GSMA estimates that worldwide, women are 20 percent less likely to use mobile internet than men. This blended figure also masks important disparities: in low- and middle-income countries, the gap is much wider (51 per cent in South Asia, for example, and 37 percent in sub-Saharan Africa). For all the justly celebrated gains that DFS have contributed to financial inclusion in absolute terms, the digital divide risks entrenching the gender gap in financial services—that is, the more that access to financial services depends upon access to mobile internet, the greater the risk that DFS could become simply a force multiplier for the status quo rather than helping close the gender divide.

In our work on digital financial standards, CERISE + SPTF is seeking solutions to drivers of the digital divide such as low digital literacy, cultural barriers, and limited access to electronic devices. Among the mandates of our new DFS Working Group is to identify solutions, such as prioritizing the selection of women-led businesses in an agent network, and integrating both assessments of digital literacy and the offer of digital training into the product design and delivery process.

Like all our initiatives, the DFS Working Group is broad-based and collaborative. CERISE + SPTF do not claim to have all the answers—that is why we seek to hear and learn from as many stakeholders as possible. We strive to bring that same spirit of appreciative inquiry to everything we do, gender awareness very much included. An old joke reminds us that you can hear a lot just by listening. As we acknowledge the many accomplishments of women and girls this month, let’s remember that one of the greatest honors you can pay someone is to listen to them—and take what they say seriously. For our industry, listening to our women customers and staffers is the all-important foundation toward gender-aware products and practices, ones with the potential for real and lasting impact.