What if it Had Been Lehman Brothers & Sisters?: The Importance of Building Gender Diverse Microfinance Institutions

September 15, 2011

Microfinance as an industry is still quite young, and when it comes to addressing institutional support for gender diversity, the efforts are nascent. Much has been learned—both about what has worked and what has failed—in the corporate world about engaging women professionals. The question to the microfinance industry is how well can we take advantage of these inroads, these tested efforts and do even better at building inclusive institutions? Can the microfinance industry leapfrog the corporate world’s stages of evolution by incorporating gender best practices into the way of doing business, before business becomes too entrenched?

Women’s World Banking has been working with institutions on gender diversity in 2008 both in response to a declining number of women at senior levels in the industry and in recognition of the strong business case for gender diversity. Borrowing a concept from corporate marketing strategy, the business case would hold that microfinance institutions (MFIs) targeting women customers will be more successful at understanding and responding to customers’ needs if they mirror their market. This is not to say that men cannot or do not grasp the needs of a female client base, but rather that having women’s voices at the tables where decisions are made about which products to offer, and how, will lead to decisions that are more responsive to women clients.

Differentiation in the market as a gender diverse organization attracts not only top female talent but can have corresponding benefits in attracting new women clients. These concepts seem even more relevant today as the microfinance industry, particularly in South Asia, is being forced to look inward and explore what it means to focus on customers and re-examine its commitment to the mission of poverty alleviation. This publication draws on three gender assessments conducted by Women’s World Banking from 2008 to 2010 with microfinance institutions in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The intention of this cross-institutional analysis is not to minimize the significant differences amongst institutions in these three countries of South Asia but rather to identify what similarities exist for women working in microfinance. In this way, microfinance institutions looking to diversify their labor force can better understand these shared challenges and opportunities. Each of these institutions is distinct in its organizational characteristics; there are also variances in the development of each country’s microfinance industry, and of course the cultural, religious, economic and social factors that influence women’s access to the formal labor market and attitudes towards women’s employment. In spite of these differences, the similarities in the findings of Women’s World Banking’s research suggest that common solutions to achieving greater workforce diversity exist.Download the English version