Can Leadership Training for Women Clients be the Catalyst for Empowerment?

February 6, 2017

Financial education for women clients has proven to be successful in helping women feel more in control of their financial lives.  Through traditional financial education programs, women clients learn to track their earnings and savings and how to calculate interest rates. But while these programs give women a sense of understanding and ownership of their finances, do they help women achieve “empowerment,” that much-sought after but notoriously elusive outcome that enables women to reach their business goals, achieve their personal dreams and make decisions inside and outside of her home to help shape her future?

Fundación WWB has, for the past 30 years, worked to bring financial inclusion to low-income women in Cali, Colombia. Early on, leaders at the institution realized that giving women access to financial services was not enough—in order for their clients to fully take advantage of the opportunity, they needed non-financial services such as financial education and digital training. That is why they established the Centro de Liderazgo para la Mujer (Center for Women’s Leadership) for both women clients and the public. The Center offers financial education and trainings on digital literacy, business administration, and women’s health. But after attending one of Women’s World Banking’s Women in Leadership programs, then-head of the Center, Margarita Restrepo realized that her clients needed much more. They needed the kind of leadership training she just went through, one that uses psychometric tools like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®)  and dynamic exercises that reinforce the learning (read our previous blog on adapting WIL for Fundación WWB’s clients here). The expectation was that by giving low-income women an adapted version of the type of training Women’s World Banking’s Leadership team gives to high-potential women leaders at financial institutions, they would have the confidence and skills to take on the mantle of leadership in their own lives and ultimately be empowered.

So did it work?

In order to measure the direct outcome of the program, Women’s World Banking conducted a number of interviews, focus groups, and administered surveys of participants of the initial cohort of 25 women.  Based on Kabeer’s definition of empowerment “as the process by which women take control and ownership of their lives through expansion of their choices*,” we used Martha A. Chen’s Empowerment Framework to link program effect to empowerment across four main areas: Material Change, Cognitive Change, Perceptual Change, and Relational Change.Martha Chen's Empowerment Framework

Perceptual Change

Focus group of Mujeres en el Liderazgo clients Nineteen participants believed that the Women in Leadership program has helped them develop their self-esteem.  The majority of participants surveyed also believe that it has helped them to identify blocks to their personal development and agreed that the course gave them tools or skills to strengthen their empowerment and leadership.

“I am more self-assured; I have always been afraid of making important decisions. Now I feel secure and my daughter and husband have noticed the change.  My husband wants to know if there is a similar program to help empower men.”

“[Because I am] a young single woman, my father has been the decision maker in many respects. After the program, I presented a clear action plan for improving my business and told him that from now on, I need to take charge. I feel like I have arms and ammunition to make better choices.”

Cognitive Change

Leadership Vision PosterAll participants have taken some action identified in the personal development plan created during the program.  The methodology allows participants to visualize future goals and aspirations and provides the platform to reflect and identify the gaps they need to breach in order to meet those goals.  The plan outlines small and immediate steps they can take to move forward while keeping mid-and-long terms in focus. Seventeen participants believe they have a new awareness of their life plan: vision, brand plan and action plan. Additionally, most of the participants are still trying to develop one or more of the leadership skills learned during the program and many have strengthened their networks.

“The program has given me a broader perspective on the impact I have in my community. I have been able to reflect on the learning and practice effective listening and questioning skills- which have made me a better negotiator.  I also have a clear vision of where I want to be in 5 years.” “Prioritizing has always been a challenge for me. There have been times, when I have felt overwhelmed and I have become paralyzed because everything seems important. The prioritizing module has helped me take a step back to reflect and decide what is urgent and needs be done and what are things or decisions that can be passed along to someone else. I’m focusing on the important things- not only putting out fires.” 

Material Change

The daughter of a client participating in the businessParticipants have seen material benefits that can be linked directly to the program in a number of ways.  Due to improved negotiation skills and financial planning, they are now able to ask for better margins for the products they sell; they have negotiated better contracts for their small business; and are putting aside savings to expand their business, send their children to school and even plan family vacations.

“My focus on growing the business has given me the ability to replace the bed and refrigerator I had to sell in order to buy the equipment I needed to start my printing business.  I also changed my business accountant and am more involved in the financial decisions for my business and my home.” “This new fearless me, has empowered me to make difficult decision in the short term in order to keep me on track of longer term goals.  One of my personal goals was to take a vacation with my family.  I’m in the process of booking a two-week vacation. I can’t believe this is happening.”


Relational Change

A client at her shop with an employeeParticipants report overcoming the obstacles they initially faced in creating plans to strengthen or grow their business and articulating their long-term personal goals. For instance, one young woman left the family home in order to become more independent; another participant saw the need to expand her business to other cities and successfully opened a second branch; another participant moved the business from the house to a formal shop in her neighborhood in order to separate her earnings and to gain better control of her finances.

“A radical change for me has been the process of feeling empowered to make decisions that impact my business and the lives of my children.  I have now employed my son to help manage the business and am sending him to school to finish his graduate degree.”

I lived for others before coming to the Fundación. After taking the course, I started positioning myself in the family as a decision maker and a contributor. My family is surprise by my change.  It has been very difficult for them to accept this because they were used to holding me back- I did not have a voice or a vote in family decisions. That all has changed.”

Based on our assessment tracking life outcomes derived from the program to Chen’s Empowerment Framework, the simple answer is yes. Participants of Fundación WWB’s Mujeres en el Liderazgo experienced positive changes in their lives across perceptual, material, cognitive and relational dimensions.

Is it replicable?

The success of the program in Colombia has a number of unique variables, including Fundación WWB’s multi-program offerings and the countries unique contextual and social reality.  In order to meet the specific needs of this program, the curriculum was carefully customized using a needs analysis that included one-on-one interviews and surveys.  This program is in no way a one-size-fits all.  Therefore, additional modifications will be required in order to standardize the program for a global roll-out. We have to do more work to understand what made this project successful, what was unique to this context and how it can be improved. As we mentioned in the beginning, empowering women is an elusive goal, but this program shows that given the right conditions, a simple training complementing access to financial services can move a low-income woman from mere inclusion to empowerment.


Kabeer, N. (1999). Resources, Agency, Achievements: Reflections on the Measurement of Women’s Empowerment.  Development and Change, 30, 435-464.