FinDev Blog

Digitize, Direct, Design (D3): Can These Three Principles Help Close the Gender Gap?

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s approach to enhancing women’s economic empowerment
Woman with mobile phone. Photo credit: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation 2012.

Around the world, increasing numbers of people are gaining access to bank accounts and other formal financial services. 515 million more people had access in 2017 than three years before, according to Global Findex. The population excluded from the formal financial sector fell by a third from 2011 to 2017: from 2.5 billion to 1.7 billion in just six years.

We still have a ways to go, however, with respect to fully including women. The gender gap in emerging economies persists, suggesting that this increased access to financial services has not been evenly distributed. Women’s rates of ownership still lag behind men’s by 7 percent globally and 9 percent in developing countries, a gap unchanged since 2011. And women represent 56 percent of all unbanked adults. These women—almost one billion of them—live mostly in rural areas and often in poverty. They are also more likely to have low educational attainment and be out of the paid labor force.

The Financial Services for the Poor (FSP) team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation believes that a digital payment system will enable the private sector to deliver financial products to the poor at scale, thereby supporting transitions out of poverty. When men and women actively participate in the financial system, they can better manage risk, smooth consumption, and take advantage of economic opportunities.

To realize the potential gains of financial inclusion, though, more intentional efforts are needed to close persistent gender gaps.  We believe that digitizing predictable income streams for low-income women can help bring them into the digital ecosystem by ensuring they have digital transaction accounts from which they can save, send and have access to credit, even if in small amounts.

Investing in established Government-to-People (G2P) social safety net cash transfer programs is the first pathway we plan to support, as a lever to increase the value of digital financial services (DFS) for low-income women, and give more of them the chance to adopt and use DFS. Among adults in developing economies who received government transfers digitally, 36 percent opened their first account specifically for that purpose. Country exemplars in Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Mongolia and Iran have shown us that moving routine cash transactions into digital accounts can boost rates of female account ownership significantly and rapidly.  

Our hypothesis is that direct digital transfers to low-income women, when coupled with a well-designed G2P cash transfer system that takes gender into account, can increase women’s control over personal financial decisions and enhance their prospects for economic empowerment. We envision a future in which a low-income woman’s life will be improved because she is financially independent and economically active. 

D3 Principles for advancing women’s financial inclusion and economic empowermentWe pulled together evidence and recent insights from around the globe, across social protection and financial inclusion, and developed three core principles for advancing women’s financial inclusion and economic empowerment: Digitize, Direct, Design (D3). We believe that by digitizing priority social protection programs, directing the payments into women’s accounts, and designing the program so that they expand women’s opportunities, G2P social protection programs can be leveraged to close the DFS gender gap and advance women’s economic empowerment outcomes.

Over the next three years, the foundation will test these principles in three countries where we have completed initial D3 diagnostics: India (Bihar), Pakistan and Tanzania. We hope to discover what makes the most difference for low-income women participating in social safety net programs.

But before we can begin to implement the D3 principles in each country, we first had to ask ourselves: What skills and capabilities do low-income women need to successfully participate in the digital financial ecosystem of these social safety net programs? The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation supported Women’s World Banking and Fundación Capital to answer this question through field research and industry expert interviews. We concluded that women recipients of G2P cash transfers need to build skills and a knowledge base in order to become active participants in digital financial services and informed financial decision-making. They will need support in overcoming the challenges of knowledge gaps, misinformation, digital illiteracy and scams that hinder active and informed use of DFS.    

In the coming months, we will be collaborating with in-country government and technical partners to test and implement the changes recommended for each country’s social protection program. We hope to generate evidence that will explain the role of specific D3 features, and to determine which criteria are most important and which have the largest impacts on women’s overall economic well-being.

Our vision?  A future in which women have adopted and are using digital accounts, and:

  • Have access to and use a wider range of financial services and products.
  • Have the confidence and capability to control the transfers in their accounts.
  • Are respected and valued as economic actors and financial decision-makers.
  • Are more likely to live in a thriving economic community and experience increased mobility and security.

If you are working to promote women's economic empowerment through financial inclusion, what kinds of challenges and opportunities are you seeing? 


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14 June 2019

Interesting project - I work in the women’s economic empowerment space and have previously worked on many many development projects.
One thing our teams always found very useful was to build a comprehensive theory of change for how the proposed intervention will lead to he intended impact. That would be a great exercise for this 3D approach - especially to clearly state the assumptions in place for achieving the intended impact looking at micro, mesos and macro environments.
Would be very interesting to read another blog on the theory of change for this approach.

Alexandra Fiorillo
20 June 2019

Thank you, Rahim. This has actually already been built! There are many interventions we are testing in each of the three focus countries. And each has a complex ToC and will be evaluated rigorously. Please follow as we share out more learnings along the way!

Imran Javed
25 June 2019

When working with rural poor women especially with ultra poor women for their empowerment either through cash transfer or technical skills program, the main hitches are illiteracy and accessibility to the social safety nets.

Alexandra Fiorillo
11 July 2019

Thanks for your comment! We are definitely aware of the primary barriers to access and usage and are addressing them in our program implementation.

Amir Mohammad Tahamtan
03 July 2019

Where I can find more information about the project in Iran? It is mentioned "Country exemplars in Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Mongolia and Iran have shown us that moving routine cash transactions into digital accounts can boost rates of female account ownership significantly and rapidly." However I can not find any information in the cited reference about Iran.

Alexandra Fiorillo
11 July 2019

Thank you for reading the post! For more information on the Iran case, please see this paper:…
Hope that helps and you find it interesting! Thanks again.

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