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Agent Gender Matters, but How to Recruit and Retain Women Agents?

Four strategies to help overcome the obstacles in onboarding female agents
Smiling woman sitting down next to a black goat, India.

Jayanthi, a business correspondent (BC) agent with a Small Finance Bank, runs a small grocery shop in Tamil Nadu and operates her agent business daily from 10am to 5pm, providing cash-in-cash-out facilities. Before associating with the bank and becoming an agent over a year ago, she was a housewife. When asked what the best part of her job was and if she was being paid enough, she humbly replied, “Pay, I am not sure, but since I am doing this work, people know who Jayanthi is, and that is the best part.”

Across the country, numerous female agents echo Jayanthi's sentiment, resonating with the idea that the agent business has given them a newfound identity and agency. Many of them are learning the ropes of running a business, gaining digital skills and marching ahead on the pathways for economic empowerment.

Multiple research studies conducted worldwide have confirmed the essential role of women agents in advancing the cause of financial inclusion and fostering business growth for financial service providers (FSPs). Grameen Foundation India, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, implemented the BEADS (Business Correspondent Network Manager Experiment and Demonstrating Scale) project from 2021-2023 to enhance agent viability and women's participation in agent networks. Research findings from the project endline evaluation, surveying 433 agents and 434 customers across seven Indian states, further strengthen the evidence on the benefits of female agents. Our findings indicated that female customers prefer female agents, and agents serving more women customers experience increased income and job satisfaction.

Four Proven Strategies for Recruiting and Retaining Female Agents

While gender inclusivity is essential, we must recognize the obstacles FSPs encounter when onboarding female agents.  Surveys have reported that business correspondent network managers (BCNMs) have to channel more effort and resources into recruiting and retaining women candidates than men. Through qualitative discussions with different BCNMs, we also discovered that despite their desire to promote gender inclusivity, institutions face difficulties recruiting female agents due to societal norms and limited female applicants.

In this context, the BEADS project tested solutions for improving recruiting and retaining female agents. Our endline evaluation and experience revealed four proven strategies that work to drive the recruitment and retention of women agents in India or similar socio-economic contexts:

1. Refine the recruitment pitch for women agents to offer value propositions beyond financial benefits. It is crucial to understand, through a gender lens, what drives a person to become an agent and recognize that the motivations for men and women differ significantly. Our research showed interesting evidence in this regard:

  • Bar chart displaying different motivations for becoming a BC agentBoth genders prioritize income as a key motivator, but females prioritized it comparatively less. (figure 1).
  • Female agents hold financial independence and social prestige in higher regard than their male counterparts.

These findings show that BCNMs/FSPs need to emphasize the elements of social prestige and the opportunity for financial independence as key selling points in their recruitment pitch.

2. Conduct Gender and Household Dialogue during agent onboarding. Family buy-in is crucial, as women often rely on support from their spouses and family members to successfully navigate agent business challenges. A gender and household dialogue toolkit was developed under the BEADS project to engage family members and spouses to discuss the benefits and challenges related to BC work for the woman agent. The dialogues helped to facilitate a stronger connection between the agent managers and the woman agent, as they now had family support.

The results from the project evaluation validate the efficacy of these dialogues. After facilitating gender and household dialogues as an intervention, it was found that an additional 31 percent of women agents reported receiving support from their family members, especially spouses, in carrying out their duties. Greater support at the household resulted in a significant increase in the representation of female agents in the workforce. For one of the BCNM partners, the overall representation of women agents increased by 20 percent, leading it to scale up the intervention in its non-pilot districts, testifying to the success of the intervention.

Graph showing drivers of agent retention by gender3. Keep reinforcing the agent’s role in driving impact at the community level. Our research showed that when it comes to agent retention, female agents attached more significance to aspects of community impact, learning opportunities and earning respect as compared to male agents (figure 2). Anuradha, a female agent associated with a BCNM, said, “Although my children and husband earn well, the income from agent work is really important to me. It brings me joy to know I've done something valuable for my community.”

Emphasizing the positive effects of the agent role for women, such as enhanced childcare due to increased income and chances for personal development, is crucial to maintain the motivation of women agents.  Promoting agent roles as professional jobs with a brand identity attracts women. For example, one women's bank increased agent retention by offering branded items and customer-centered training, enhancing belonging and ties.

4. Recognize, reward and set aspirational goals for deeper engagement. Our learnings from the BEADS program suggest that promoting top-performing women agents by organizing regular events and providing rewards and recognition to high performers can foster aspirational goals and motivate more women to participate. 

Kavita, an agent working under the BEADS intervention, shared that she had been inspired by positive training experiences where accomplishments were rewarded, fostering camaraderie. Grameen also introduced an annual event, “Jazbe Ko Salam,” which translates to Saluting the Spirit, to recognize and reward top-performing female agents. Learning from its successes, partners decided to continue this as an annual celebration on International Women’s Day. 

Moving forward

By implementing some of these strategies, FSPs can create an environment that encourages women to join and thrive as agents. However, gender inclusivity cannot be achieved through isolated efforts; it requires integrating gender sensitivity as a philosophy across organizational levels to create an inclusive environment. 

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