Jumping to conclusions: How commonly held assumptions have skewed our view on women’s financial inclusion

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Have you heard of the Fosbury Flop? Probably not. But you’d know one if you saw it. It’s the technique that high jumpers use when jumping back-first over high bars, commonly seen at the Olympics. It wasn’t always the accepted way of doing things, of course. Previously, athletes approached the bar front-on, and jumping over backwards was considered unconventional and clumsy. The consensus at the time was that jumping backwards could never lead to higher jumps. That was until Dick Fosbury came along and won gold, employing his namesake move at the 1968 Olympics. In doing so, he demonstrated that the Fosbury Flop technique provides a lower centre of gravity in flight, thus enabling jumpers to reach greater heights.

But testing conventional wisdom is not always easy. The accepted way of doing things is usually built up over time and rooted in strong cultural or ideological beliefs. But by not challenging accepted norms, we risk missing out on greater rewards, whether that be leaping higher, or making an unexpected discovery.

In September, UNCDF participated in the 8th Global Policy Forum hosted by the Alliance for Financial Inclusion (AFI).

The forum brought considerable attention to women’s financial inclusion, highlighted by the endorsement by AFI members from over 100 countries of the Denarau Gender Action Plan: The AFI Network Commitment to Gender and Women’s Financial Inclusion.

The event served to demonstrate the significant progress is still required to close the gender gap in financial inclusion, and that many more assumptions remain untested. In an effort to advance women’s financial inclusion, the UNCDF SHIFT programme has been testing assumptions about women’s access and usage of financial services through a blog series with the Centre for Financial Regulation and Inclusion (Cenfri).

Our first blog tested the assumed gender gap in Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. We found that women and men have almost equal access to formal financial services, but they often access them from different types of financial institutions. Our second blog explored gendered differences in the usage of formal and informal financial services. We found that women use more informal financial services than men. Women may prefer informal services over formal alternatives because they tend to be more accessible, community-based, involve door-to-door delivery, and offer women greater value.

This blog takes a deeper look into the data collected through the FinScope demand-side surveys in the ASEAN region, to test some of the commonly held assumptions of the barriers that women face when accessing formal financial services, to see how they hold up.

Assumption 1: Women have less control over their household finances than men

The assumption in most of the developing world is that the male – as the head of the household – is in control of how finances are managed. However, the findings from Finscope Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos about women’s participation in household financial decision-making indicated that women have equal, if not more, ownership over their household finances. For example, in Cambodia, 81% of women reported participating in financial decision-making within the household, compared to 67% of men. But, the story isn’t that straight forward. Averaged across all three countries, approximately 91% of married and 80% of separated women have control over household finances, but only 47% of single women participate in household financial decision-making. Only about 10% of these single women are dependent on other household members for finance. That means about 90% of single women earn an income, but less than half participate in household financial decision making. More investigation is needed to understand why.

Assumption 2: Women do not have collateral

One of the most cited barriers to credit for adults is often collateral. The conventional wisdom is that collateral is a bigger barrier for women because any collateral they would have (i.e. a home or title deed) is usually under the name of a male family member. However, the data collected through FinScope revealed that this is not consistent across the three countries, nor across different segments of the female population. For example, in Myanmar and Cambodia, the percentage of women who report having a home or title deed is either the same or greater than it is for men. In Laos, it is significantly lower, with 48% of women reporting to have a home or title deed, compared to 73% of men. Whilst these numbers vary, the FinScope data revealed that across all of the countries, single women are the least likely to own collateral. So this raises the question whether specific groups of women are more collateral constrained.

Assumption 3: Women have less access to identification documentation

Identification documents (IDs), required to access basic formal financial services, typically include a passport, family book or national identity document. Almost all men (96%) and women (89%) in Myanmar have some sort of ID. Similarly, in Cambodia, 95% of both men and women have a document proving their identity. In contrast, the level of ID ownership in Laos is quite a bit lower. Only 50% of women and 54% of men report having ID, which directly affects their levels of formal financial inclusion. Therefore, across all three countries there is only a small difference in ID ownership between men and women.

Assumption 4: Women have low levels of financial literacy and capability

FinScope confirms what national statistics often show: that women, on average, have attained lower levels of education than men. The assumption is that this has a direct bearing on their financial literacy and their ability to engage with formal financial services. However, in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia less than 10% of the women self-report that they do not understand how banks work, a number which is comparable to that for men. Other areas of financial capability did raise alarms. Over-spending and a lack of budgeting is often used as proxies for financial capability. We found that a high percentage (50% to 80%) of women in Cambodia and Myanmar spend more than they earn. Similarly, only about a third of women budget regularly in Cambodia and Laos. Financial capability initiatives can do much to assist women to improve their financial management skills. However, for a lot of women, spending more than their income is often necessary to stretch budgets and step in when men do not meet financial obligations, rather than an indication of their lack of financial capability.

Whilst this analysis is relatively narrow, focusing only on three countries and relying on the FinScope consumer survey, it does suggest that some of the assumptions regarding women and financial services may require rigorous re-examination. In addition, even though many of the barriers identified above may not vary significantly for men and women as a whole, they seem to do so for rather for specific segments of the female population (married vs. single, young vs. old) who face discrete barriers to formal financial services. To close the financial inclusion gender gap we need to use data proactively to test and debunk assumptions we have around how and why women use financial services. By testing these assumptions, we advance our understanding of what ultimately drives women to use formal financial services. Like Olympian Dick Fosbury, by challenging traditionally held beliefs, we open our minds to new ideas, and ultimately change how we, and others, will do things in the future.

This blog originally appeared on the UNCDF SHIFT website as part of a series on gendered data in financial inclusion in ASEAN.


By Jeremy Gray, David Saunders & Albert van der Linden

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