Increasing attention has been focused recently on the gender gap in financial inclusion. In YouthSave, the proportion girls vs. boys who opened accounts varied widely across our four countries: from a slight majority (54%) in Ghana, to almost exact parity in Colombia, to only about 40% in Kenya and Nepal. In some cases, these differentials were smaller than those reported for adults in the Findex database (Colombia), and in others, larger (Kenya, Nepal, and Ghana – though in YouthSave Ghana the gender differential was the reverse of that for adults!).
These data would seem to indicate that the roots of the financial inclusion gender gap start far before adulthood – and that the period of adolescence may hold the potential for equalizing or even reversing it. In another piece of striking evidence to this effect, YouthSave research revealed that regardless of how many girls signed up for accounts, the amounts they saved were almost exactly the same as boys. In fact the only statistically significant difference between boys’ and girls’ saving (as measured by average net monthly savings) was in Nepal, where girls saved a bit more.
Why would this be the case? How is it that so many fewer girls signed up for accounts in Kenya and Nepal, while those who did, saved in the same amounts as boys? As with so many research projects, YouthSave’s findings opened up a host of questions that couldn’t be answered within the project life. Fortunately, through Guyer Fellowship funds made available by Save the Children, former YouthSave staffer Christina Willliams was able to travel to Kenya to further investigate this intriguing question.
Christina’s research consisted of focus groups and interviews with 315 youth: boys and girls who participated in YouthSave’s financial education and then either did or did not open an account. In addition, she interviewed 24 key informant adults, including parents/guardians of youth who did and did not open an account, head teachers in the youths’ schools, financial education facilitators/mentors, and Postbank staff. Her findings reveal two broad categories of factors that may be driving the seeming paradox of girls’ relatively low uptake rates but equal or greater savings in Kenya.
1. Product-related factors: The market research used to design Postbank’s youth savings account revealed that the greatest difference in what youth wanted in a savings vehicle was not actually between boys and girls but rather between in- and out-of-school youth – reflecting findings in other countries as well. But while product features may have been broadly suitable for both boys and girls, Christina’s research revealed that marketing and delivery may have made a difference in how accessible girls found the account. Specifically, the decision to focus marketing outreach on schools made it less likely that girls could access the account equally, given the lower number of girls in school than boys in Kenya, especially in urban areas. And for those girls who were in school, marketing by male bank staff may have posed a challenge. Girls themselves indicated that they were more comfortable interacting with female staff, and their head teachers reported being more at ease allowing these interactions.
2. Social dynamics:One of the clearest messages in Christina’s research was the extent to which broader gender norms trumped product- and program-related characteristics in shaping girls’ access to accounts, their ability to save in them, and their confidence that they could do either. First, interviews and FGDs revealed that parents and teachers alike place greater emphasis on financial capability for boys vs. girls. In the words of one school principal, who was also the father of two account holders, “Both my son and daughter have accounts with Postbank. I think it’s great that they are learning to save. Of course, it is important that my son knows especially since he will have to run a household of his own when he’s older.” Fathers’ approval of girls’ saving was observed to be particularly important because of gender norms that generally dictate the primacy of their opinions in such family decisions.
So while key adults tend to encourage boys to work or be entrepreneurial, girls reported being encouraged to focus on their studies and chores at home. Their mobility is also limited outright, as described by one girl who said, ““If I wanted to go hang out with my friends, my parents, especially my father, would make it difficult for me. Then I just don’t even ask them anymore... But for my brother, he doesn’t have to ask and when he comes home late no one questions him…” Needless to say, this translates into greater ability for boys to earn an income to save relative to girls, as well as to travel to a bank branch to operate an account. It would be understandable if an awareness of these factors discouraged girls from opening accounts.
And yet, tens of thousands of girls in Kenya did manage to open and save in their accounts. So what made them different or enabled them to overcome the obstacles reported? While a number of factors are no doubt at play here, one key differentiator seems to have been the existence of a strong female role model in the girls’ lives. Teachers were often reported to serve as these role models, as in the case of a student in Nairobi who said, “My teacher is the one I look up to the most… I do not live with my parents at home, and I think that she is like my mother… She encourages me to save, and to use that money to go to university so I can become a lawyer… Since I am known as the persuader!” Such role models can help girls overcome the “confidence gap” produced by the types of social dynamics described above, despite their participation in financial education designed to help them understand how to save.
Based on her observations, Christina offers the following recommendations for implementers of youth financial capability programs looking to ensure equitable opportunities for participation by girls and boys:
- More outreach to out-of-school youth in order to reach more girls
- More marketing by female bank staff
- Gender-segregated marketing sessions
- More, and more awareness of, nearby transaction points
- Mobile money linkages for increased accessibility and privacy
- Interventions to increase parental and social support for girls saving, especially by fathers
- Increased resource flows to girls, through for example a cash transfer during/after financial education or skill building programs that impart technical/vocational and soft/life skills in addition to financial education