Navigating New Frontiers for Women’s Financial Inclusion: Data and Harmonization in a Digital World

The world of digital financial services (DFS)—mobile money, mobile banking, digital payment platforms, and FinTechs—is the new frontier for financial inclusion. But what does this frontier mean for women—and how can we navigate it using harmonized gender data? Starting with the G7 gender ministerial later this week,  several high-level meetings in the next six months provide an opportunity for the international community to begin addressing that question by setting a common gender data agenda—a necessary step if DFS are to help close the financial inclusion gender gap.

Opportunities and limitations of DFS for women

Mobile money and other DFS are expanding rapidly, reaching women and the poor, who tend to be overlooked by traditional banks. Yet while advances in DFS can leapfrog financial inclusion and provide women with increased privacy and agency, the rapid growth of digital finance has not erased an unyielding global gender gap in financial inclusion nor a persistent gender digital divide.

In Bangladesh, for example, the gender gap in financial inclusion grew from 9 percentage points in 2011 to 21 percentage points in 2017, partly due to increased DFS access for men, which did not translate into equitable access for women. There are many reasons for this, including gender inequalities in digital access and mobile phone ownership, algorithms encoding existing gender biases, issues with digital identification, and a lack of DFS gender data.

How gender data can help

Gender data—both demand-side (survey data from clients) and supply-side data (data from financial service providers)—is a necessary first step to create robust policy and market interventions to support women’s financial inclusion. This data can help policymakers navigate the design of digital financial inclusion policies, flagging gender inequalities in access and use. A leading example is the work of the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE), supported by Data2X’s Women’s Financial Inclusion Data Partnership, to improve sex-disaggregated supply-side data reporting from financial service providers (FSPs). The gender data reported by Egyptian FSPs showed a significant gender gap in mobile payment users—and therefore an opportunity to reach women with mobile payments. In response, CBE is encouraging increased mobile wallet use by changing regulations and allowing banks to digitize savings wallets.

Since DFS providers collect data already, they can be incentivized to collect gender data by recording the sex of the account holder during the registration process (using agent registries, SIM registration, or national IDs). Repositories of this information at the global level would include, importantly, the IMF’s Financial Access Survey, which has begun collecting data on mobile money, but this data is currently not sex-disaggregated.

Harmonization can guide measurement on women’s financial inclusion

Data harmonization means that definitions and indicators are consistent and compatible in data collection and analysis. This can reduce countries’ reporting burdens; allow for greater comparability across different datasets; and generate consensus on how we prioritize what we measure, and therefore what we understand about women’s financial inclusion.

For instance, what is a women-owned business? Is it a women-owned business when the majority of owners are women, or does the firm need to have 51 percent women ownership and other criteria (women management or shareholders) to qualify? The wide variety of definitions in circulation make it difficult to identify, collect data on, and therefore serve women-owned businesses.

The time is now to align core definitions and indicators

DFS offer an opportunity to harmonize core definitions and indicators as these services build data systems from the start, unburdened by a long history of data collection. However, not all definitions and indicators need to or should be harmonized—and harmonization comes with resourcing and capacity challenges. DFS adds the complication of coordinating multiple private sector partners (mobile operators, FinTechs, commercial banks) subject to a range of different regulatory bodies. And digital data adds the need for agreed upon protocols for sharing digital information, while protecting individual privacy. But digital has the potential to change the game, reaching women and the poor, and giving people the financial services they need, and to generate significant, hopefully harmonized, supply-side gender data.

How to harmonize on gender data: champions, commitment, and collaboration

Champions—whether regulatory rock stars or high-level global ambassadors for financial inclusion—can help advocate for gender data in DFS policy agendas and garner institutional buy-in from leading data collectors and aggregators on harmonization. Queen Máxima of the Netherlands in her role as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Advocate for Inclusive Finance for Development, and Christine Lagarde, Managing Director and Chairwoman of the IMF, are two powerful global champions for women’s financial inclusion and its reliance on gender data.

Tangible commitments—from data collectors and aggregators, starting with international financial institutions and networks—enable harmonization to improve priority definitions and indicators for women’s financial inclusion, including digital gender data.  

Finally, the importance of collaboration signals that all actors in the financial inclusion ecosystem have a role to play in unearthing key findings on women’s digital financial inclusion. Nationally, various regulators for the banking system, telecoms, and mobile money operators can request gender data, align and share reporting. Across countries, regional or global networks of regulators and FSPs can roll out harmonized priority definitions and indicators. And FinTech investors can request sex-disaggregated data as part of their investees’ key performance indicators, incentivizing early collection of gender data.

2019 can be a pivotal year for advancing harmonized gender data on DFS

Upcoming international platforms and critical meetings offer ready-made opportunities for making tangible government commitments to accelerate improved gender data on financial inclusion. In just a few days, on May 9–10, the ministerial gender equality meeting of the G7 Summit (a key priority during France’s presidency) will take place with a key theme being women’s economic empowerment in Africa. Meanwhile the G7 ministerial meeting for digital technology will take place on May 16, with a focus on the G7’s strategy at the nexus of digital technology and the data economy—including on rules of international data transfer, collection, retention, and privacy. As G7 ministers convene, they should seriously consider forging consensus on the fundamentals of DFS gender data and early harmonization of data collection ahead of the G7 Summit in August.

Consensus on DFS gender data can be also built at the June G20 Summit in Japan (given the 2016 G20 High-Level Principles for Digital Financial Inclusion, which includes a principle to collect and use digital data). Importantly, the September AFI Global Policy Forum in Rwanda, with its unveiling of a policy framework on digital financial inclusion for women, presents an opportune moment for AFI members to lead the way on DFS gender data collection. And the November APEC meeting in Chile will look specifically at developing a methodology for producing harmonized data on digital economies in APEC countries, while also encouraging countries to collect and use gender data for women’s economic empowerment, including on women-owned SMEs in digital trade.

These critical convenings around various networks of countries offer a unique and time-bound opportunity for national and international commitments and collaboration on an early, harmonized gender data agenda for digital financial services—a necessary and concrete step forward towards closing gender gaps in financial inclusion and digital finance, with proven benefits for women and economies.

Stephanie Oula is a Program Officer at Data2X, housed at the United Nations Foundation. Mayra Buvinic is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development and UNF/Data2X.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.