Making big data work for women’s financial inclusion

By Dr Emily Brearly

Photo Credit: HUMA, World Bank

Big data has been essential in revealing the enormous inequalities that exist between women and men — the United Nation’s Gender Inequality Index calculates that it will take another 202 years to close the gap in economic opportunity — but for those of us who don’t have that much time to wait, the strategic use of data is crucial for making strides in closing that gap. Yet we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and data must facilitate action, not procrastination.

While it might always have seemed obvious to women that economic policies and budgets are far from gender-neutral, it took one of the most important economists of the 21st Century, Esther Boserup, to publish her seminal 1970’s thesis and challenge international development institutions to shift away from a men-centric approach.

By contrasting subsistence farming with aid-financed efforts to commercialize agriculture, Boserup argued that Western-led development often worsened the status of and opportunities for women. This gap could only be addressed by understanding the different constraints women and men faced and designing aid programs accordingly. Boserup’s work prompted the UN’s Decade for Women (1976–1985), and it still informs efforts to integrate a gender equality perspective at all levels of policies, programs and projects (also known as “gender mainstreaming”).

Yet even today, gender mainstreaming efforts are often undermined by traditional power dynamics and vested interests. To obscure this zero-sum game and stall change, development institutions tend to marginalize women, citing a lack of disaggregated data as a barrier to taking decisive action to reallocate financial resources within large projects. Further, gender expertise has been touted as a highly-skilled and specialized discipline, rather than a skill that can be integrated into all jobs across sectors.

The Women’s Empowerment Initiative under USAID CATALYZE aims to learn from and correct these missteps; and show how we can close the gender financing gap within our lifetime, if not sooner.

Gender Bias in Finance

The Initiative is working with commercial banks to realize the enormous business opportunity and capture women’s unmet demand for financial services — which currently stands at USD 300 billion globally. This is not about lengthy data collection by specialists, pink credit cards or shunting women-focused initiatives into the realm of corporate social responsibility programs.

Rather, this is about ensuring that bias against women is minimized using smart data and that core bank products and services serve 100 per cent (rather than 49 per cent) of the population. Anyone can be a “gender specialist” by simply asking the right questions about how women experience bias when accessing the same financial products to which men have always had access.

This approach is client-centric and results-driven — we want to create tangible solutions that will help banks increase the number of women they serve, focusing on self-evident opportunities that don’t require onerous data collection requirements. When we do use data, we try to actualize the lessons learnt from behavioral economist Iris Bohnet — the Boserup of our times — to overcome bias and nudge banks to bypass human bias.

The most compelling anecdote to illustrate this approach is the use of a black curtain by the LA Philharmonic. Simply asking musicians to audition without revealing their identity resulted in exponentially more women and people of colour being hired to play in the orchestra.

For development projects to be successful, we must take into account the ways in which women have been historically marginalized and thus have less access to assets, opportunities, and political voice. To walk the walk and not just talk the talk, we must use data strategically and not allow it to become an impediment to action. By placing our bank clients at the center of our program we hope to achieve win-win solutions that benefit women and keep businesses profitable and sustainable.

Palladium implements USAID CATALYZE, a blended finance program. Dr. Brearley is the gender lens investment lead for CATALYZE and leads the Women’s Empowerment Initiative. For more information, contact



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