Plenary: Women clients ≠ women empowerment: beyond the numbers

  • Yasmin BIN-HUMAM, CGAP
  • Bobbi GRAY, Grameen Foundation 
  • Imran MATIN, Innovations for Poverty Action 
  • Anna ZANGHI, Mastercard 
  • Bdour M. AL-HYARI, Microfund for Women (MFW), Jordan


Yasmin BIN-HUMAM, from CGAP, opened the session by sharing some figures on women empowerment. She explained that great strides have been made in women empowerment. In 2014, 10% of women globally have taken formal credit, while 58% of women have formal accounts. However, these numbers are much lower in sub-Saharan Africa. Currently, financial services do not meet the needs of many female clients, as financial service providers do not understand their needs. She introduced the panellists and requested them to provide their inputs on women empowerment.

Imran MATIN of the Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), a research and policy non-profit, explained that empowerment is a political process. As a result, measuring empowerment is difficult; both the outcomes and achieved processes need to be measured. Matin explained that intra-household dynamics are the main challenge in terms of measuring women empowerment, because indirect measures are needed. He indicated several options to improve impact measurement, such as adding games in surveys, and combining quantitative and qualitative elements in data collection.

Bdour M. AL-HYARI introduced Microfund for Women (MFW), the largest MFI in Jordan, where women account for 96% of its clients. She explained that MFW defines women empowerment as a combination of material, cognitive, perceptual and relational change. Of these levels, material change is easy to measure. The other changes are intangible, thus more difficult to measure.

Bobbi GRAY, from the Grameen Foundation, added that the Foundation endorses MFW's definition of women empowerment. She explained that financial services have been successful in impacting material, cognitive and perceptual change, but not yet relational change, a level which depends on intra-household decision making. She argued that women need to be empowered within their household. To make changes, the Grameen Foundation needs to interact more with decision makers in the household. The Foundation also added a fifth level to their women's empowerment framework: structural change. Structural changes take into account the policies and procedures as well as staff biases that may exist within a financial institution that also have to change in order to be effective change agents.

Anna ZANGHI presented the global index of women entrepreneurs which Mastercard developed to rank individual countries. This index is based on three pillars: Women's Advancement Outcomes, Knowledge Assets & Financial Access and Supporting Entrepreneurial Conditions. Zanghi explained that in order to drive scale and impact, Mastercard takes a systemic view. The organisation determines what the gaps in the ecosystem are and how to overcome these. The organisation also determines how it can leverage technology to provide opportunities and innovative solutions.

Bin-Humam asked the panellists to share their experiences on women empowerment and outcome measurement. Al-Hyari shared an impact study on one of their services. Based on a needs assessment among their clients, MFW developed a micro-insurance program that bundled credit life insurance with providing hospital cash. The impact of this service was: 1) Material, with all clients paying back the loan on time; 2) Cognitive, as clients understand the product better; 3) Perceptual, increased self-esteem of clients; and 4) Relational, with one client actually becoming mayor of her community.

Matin shared IPA's experience in impact evaluations. He argued that randomised control trials are the best method to measure impact. He added that increasing privacy and control in a product enhances a woman's bargaining position and improves outcomes. Matin highlighted several examples, showing that impact is generally the highest for women that are in a low bargaining position at the baseline. He argued that adding non-financial services to financial products has a strong impact on women empowerment, especially for poor women. If women have the right type of products and support systems, they will negotiate their space within their household.

Gray added that there are three levels of outcome research: 1) Reach; 2) Benefit and; 3) Empower. She argued that this third level needs more attention in their research. Gray added that the sector also needs to balance the outcomes they expect when they provide business loans for women, because women are also primary caregivers. She shared an experience from research they had conducted in Burkina Faso which revealed women only spent two hours a day on the economic activity they obtained credit for. She also shared an example of a health savings and loan product that had yet achieved expected success. Research had shown that 82% of women were afraid of their husband and could not go to the bank to get their savings without requiring a lot of negotiation at home to gain permission to leave the home.

Zanghi explained that the Mastercard index is a first step to track women's achievements in the business world. This index provides inputs for strategies in a changing credit environment and how to work with women in different segments. She added that different segments need varied approaches, so financial service providers need to adapt their products to the end consumer needs. She also gave the example of how younger generations are viewing credit in a very different way to previous generations, requiring a whole rethink on traditional credit products for our digital age.

The moderator asked Matin to share the main lessons learned from literature on women empowerment. Matin explained that more attention needs to be paid to heterogeneity, to ensure that studies do not draw the wrong conclusions. Outcome should be disaggregated to the different groups involved in the study.

Gray added some of the lessons learned by the Grameen Foundation in their work. She stressed the need to segment the market, so as to recognise that not all women are the same. She also argued that the sector should acknowledge that they have to work with the husbands and families of these women. Instead of seeing women as individual clients, they have to address the social norms that they live in. Zanghi shared this view and added that women need both powerful female and male role models in their environment. Matin added that understanding this norm and how to shift it are key to going forward in women empowerment. Al-Hyari concluded that the sector needs to work within the contexts of female clients, as social norms vary widely. The sector needs to adapt a customer-centric approach.


A member of the audience asked if the panellists considered financial diaries in their methodology. Both Matin and Gray support the use of these diaries, as they give strong qualitative inputs. They also play an important role in measuring long-term outcomes.

Another audience member asked how to find the balance between asking detailed questions during research and the limited resources available. Matin responded that it is difficult to standardise indicators. Gray warned against thinking too much about which indicators to use. She added that, by using indicators in practice and evaluating them, you will find out which work and which do not. She also advised to build on the work already done by IPA.

A participant from GIZ argued that non-financial interventions are needed to improve empowerment. She wondered what the commercial sense is for MFIs to provide such services. Bin-Humam responded that studies found women to be more loyal clients to MFIs. Al-Hyari added that MFIs need both business and social impact to provide sustainable services. They need to be responsible institutions. Matin argued that much depends on the priorities that institutions have; if they want to shift gender norms, they must do more than other MFIs. Zanghi concluded that MFIs should partner with different organisations in order to make a difference and that public - private partnerships can drive impact at scale.