Do You See What I See? How Subjective Ideas About Gender Can Cause Financial Institutions to Stumble

August 14, 2017
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The middle photo is the original photo. Depending on the viewer, the dress was white/gold (left) or black/blue (right)

Two years ago, “The Dress” became a social media sensation. Millions of people worldwide debated whether the color of a striped dress in a photo was white-and-gold or black-and-blue. Depending on who was looking at the dress, and how, the stripes could appear to take on either color combination. Everyone who looked at the dress brought his or her own predispositions, and what people saw arguably reflected, on some level, what they wanted to see.


Similarly, assumptions people make about each other in daily life, particularly around gender, often reflect preconceived notions. When a customer walks into a bank, the staff is likely to view her or him through the prism of their own assumptions about the client’s financial or social status. These biases, conscious or not, can have a negative impact not only on clients but on financial institutions too.

Much of Women’s World Banking’s work involves designing products tailored to women and training financial institutions how to serve women with those products. But what we’ve realized is that success depends on front-line personnel—whose job it is to deliver those products—resonating with the objective to serve women as much as it does having institutional leaders’ buy-in. Helping our partner institutions show their staff why focusing on women makes sense, therefore, is a top priority.

The Gender Awareness Training Program

Our gender-awareness training program aims to close that gap so staff members serve women clients—particularly low-income women—more effectively. We launched the first gender-awareness training program in 2012 for our partner institutions in Peru, Colombia and Paraguay. We have since expanded it to other countries including Egypt, Malawi and Kenya.

The training program aims to accomplish three things. One, it must build awareness about gender differences, and help participants recognize how attitudes and beliefs about gender can influence how they deliver financial products and services. Second, it must help participants understand how their own ideas about what it means to be a man or a woman can impact the way financial institutions do business. Last, participants learn how to promote their financial institutions’ core values through gender aware-practices and policies.

Uncovering gender assumptions

VisualTrick YoungWoman OldManThe program uses different exercises designed to uncover common assumptions about gender. In one exercise, we show a black-and-white picture and ask participants what they see. For some, a black silhouette of a young woman stands out. For others, it’s a white shape that looks like an old man. The simple exercise points out how our various viewpoints can lead to subjective conclusions.

The game may be metaphorical, but the types of conclusions it highlights have real-life implications.  For example, we asked loan officers from our Paraguayan partner institution whether men or women brought in the most income in a household. Loan officers unanimously answered “men.” But when we looked at the data from one rural family, in which the husband cultivated soya and the woman took care of the animals, we found that the woman brought in 70 percent of the family’s income. Her daily revenues from selling eggs were disappearing into household bills, while her husband’s less frequent earnings arrived in more impressive-looking lump sums. This trend held true for most of the families we met.

Exercises such as the above bring to light beliefs, preconceived ideas and assumptions to make participants aware of the gender differences and preferences and is the starting pointfor more open-minded and productive interactions.

Biology vs. Society

WWB RewritingMenWomenRolesUnderstanding the differences between “gender” and “sex” is the second step.  Sex refers to the biological categories of male and female, while gender is a social construct that affects how people choose to act or dress or behave. In one exercise, we divide participants into male and female groups and ask them each to write down on paper the activities and characteristics they associate with men and women. We then display each list on the wall, switching the labels around. For instance, if one group writes down examples such as “Men are taxi drivers. Men earn money. Women take care of kids. Women cry,” we rewrite them as “Women are taxi drivers. Women earn money. Men take care of kids. Men cry.” By seeing how those roles can make sense in reverse, and relating them to examples in their own lives, participants begin to understand that those behaviors gendered, i.e. not determined by biology and that concepts of gender change over time.

Gender and Empowerment

The third step focuses on understanding the local gender context. We examine population data on women and men, concentrating on such issues as women’s entrepreneurship, access to the labor force and education. We link those topics to the four building blocks of women’s economic empowerment—financial, human, political and social capital. How many women have savings accounts, credit, or microinsurance? What barriers do women there face in accessing any of the four building blocks? We discuss how the data makes a case for the need to serve women better, and how reaching more women affects the social and economic development of the country and the health of its financial institutions.

Tying it all together

In the last part of the training, participants connect the ideas from the modules to their own work. They might notice, for example, how mistaken beliefs about women’s financial potential can affect everything from the way staff members speak to their clients, to the types of documents an institution requires for loans. If women in a particular country have no access to property, then requiring a land title before approving a loan will completely exclude women.

At our partner institution in Egypt did not at first understand why the company launched a loan product that allowed women to submit documents in a spouse or male family member’s name. During the training however, we covered how document requirements can exclude women, since paperwork is almost never in a woman’s name in Egypt. Pointing out how we adapted documentation requirements to address women’s specific barriers led to an “Aha, now I get it!” moment during one of the trainings.

Participants also come up with ideas for how to apply the gender awareness concepts in their own institutions, from product design to personnel to marketing. In Egypt, staff members remarked on the need to hire more women bank tellers. They also questioned the wisdom of distributing written brochures about financial products when so many women in rural areas are illiterate. At our partner institution in Peru, participants proposed installing a kids’ room at all the branches, so women could bring their children and not have to watch over them as they meet with loan officers.

Financial institutions are now incorporating the gender-awareness modules into their own onboarding and staff education. For instance, our partner in Colombia is including the modules as part of their online training of all new staff. Our partner institution in Kenya is also using concepts from the modules in all staff education initiatives.

At Women’s World Banking, gender-awareness training is part of every new project we take on, and we look forward to partnering with financial institutions to find dynamic new ways of bringing these concepts to life.