Research & Analysis

Social Norms Change for Women’s Financial Inclusion

Despite decades-long efforts by financial inclusion development practitioners, women continue to lag behind men in access to formal accounts. Only 49.6 percent of women in the developing world own an account, compared to 58 percent for men. This gap is even starker in regions such as South Asia where the gender gap in account ownership is 18 percentage points. New insights and approaches are needed to close this gender gap. 

Other sectors, such as health and education, have seen significant advances in women’s participation and corresponding behavior change by both men and women. Financial inclusion could do a lot more to learn from how other sectors have achieved this kind of progress. One important mechanism other sectors have used is deep understanding of how social norms impact attitudes and behaviors. By embedding programming that seeks to change these norms into their organizational culture and offerings, including services delivery, these sectors have overcome what was otherwise seen as intractable barriers. 

Social norms refer to the rules and accompanying behaviors that govern social behavior, perceptions, and conduct. Such norms have profound impact on financial inclusion, such as limiting women’s ability to work outside the home, engage with male agents, or even own a phone. Mechanisms to address these kinds of barriers can take different approaches and should be embedded into organizational programs. Workarounds for social norms is one important mechanism. For example, alternative data for credit scoring could be used in markets where women lack access to land for collateral because of norms regarding land ownership and use. Approaches that are transformational can be long-lasting and impactful. This might include, for example, changing the notion that women should not have access to mobile phones because their household roles do not require them to be informed and connected. 

This Brief introduces basic concepts of social norms change theory, reviews current practices regarding approaches to financial inclusion, and explores gendered lessons learned from other sectors that can be applied to financial inclusion.