How Do We Make Women Builders of the Digital Economy?

On November 10, 2020 UNCDF hosted the peer learning session “How Do We Make Women Builders of the Digital Economy?” at #FinEquity2020, an annual gathering of the global of researchers, practitioners, policy makers, and donors discussing the very latest developments in women’s financial inclusion.

 

The UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) makes public and private finance work for the poor in the world’s 47 least developed countries. With its capital mandate and instruments, UNCDF offers “last mile” finance models that unlock public and private resources, especially at the domestic level, to reduce poverty and support local economic development. In the last years UNCDF has advanced women’s economic empowerment, increasingly leveraging digital tools and stakeholders when appropriate. UNCDF has created diagnostics and critical research, levelling the playing field for relevant stakeholders, and helping them understand the challenges and opportunities of advancing women’s financial inclusion. UNCDF has provided deep technical expertise to support human centric design of financial products for women and increased the number of women employees within financial service providers. Furthermore, UNCDF has worked with governments across the globe on the collection and usage of sex-disaggregated data.

Last year, UNCDF launched the approach to advancing gender equality in its Inclusive Digital Economy strategy, called Women as Builders of the Digital Economy, which aims to decrease the digital divide for women and girls, use technology to improve women’s economic opportunity, and to help to transform women into the builders of emerging digital economies. This approach focuses on creating strategic partnerships at a global, regional and country level, and complementing them with market facilitation and deep technical assistance to affect change on the ground. It leverages our on-the-ground presence and relationships with ministries of finance, central banks, telecommunications regulators, other relevant policy makers, as well as the private sector (including banks, telecommunications companies, fintechs and micro finance institutions) and civil society to remove the barriers to women’s economic empowerment. UNCDF is implementing tailored interventions on a country-by-country basis integrated into existing work that will both remove barriers and accelerate increased access to critical services, ultimately increasing the number of women that not only have autonomy but digital and financial inclusion. This event was a chance to bring together experts to discuss UNCDF’s approach, focusing on the most challenging barriers to advancing women’s digital and financial inclusion, and to find ways forward together.

The UNCDF Approach – Women as Builders of the Digital Economy

Nandini Harihareswara, UNCDF Senior Advisor on Inclusive Digital Economies opened the session welcoming the participants and sharing UNCDF’s new strategy, aimed at using digital innovations to address women’s empowerment challenges. Nandini explained how UNCDF pursues a market system development approach to advance gender equality and women’s economic empowerment.

Specifically, UNCDF works with a range of stakeholders to:
• Increase the number of women and girls that own a phone, can access/use the internet and have the capability and autonomy to use it to empower their lives;
• Increase the number of affordable digital and financial products that address the needs and challenges of diverse segments of women;
• Leverage technology to increase access to finance and formalization of women-owned of managed SMEs;
• Use policy incentives and sex-disaggregated data to increase women’s digital and financial autonomy by supporting governments
• Create a “coalition of the amenable” between public and private sector actors to increase the number of women in the workforce and leadership positions.

 

Challenges and solutions to enable women digital and financial agency and autonomy

UNCDF were joined by three champions of women’s economic empowerment, who presented on the work their organizations are doing to help women to fully engage in the digital economy and their expert perspectives on the barriers to women’s digital and financial agency in developing countries. Leadership was a key recurring theme.

Venge Nyirongo, Thematic Lead of the Generation Equality Forum’s Economic Justice and Rights Action Coalition at UN Women, discussed the need to bring together public, private, and civil society leaders to drive systemic change, He highlighted how the Generation Equality Forum, a campaign led by UN Women and hosted by the Governments of France and Mexico, are bringing together leaders to accelerate this kind of change. UNCDF is a co-lead of the Economic Justice and Rights Action Coalition of the Generation Equality Forum. He explained why these coalitions are needed now more than ever; “women have been agents of change since time immemorial, when we bring down the barriers that prevent them exercising agency they can take the world forward. But since the establishment of the Beijing Platform for Action 25 years ago things haven’t moved much. We need to make deliberate decisions to move forward.”

Karen Miller, Global Head of Leadership & Diversity Programs at Women’s World Banking, highlighted the need to develop a pipeline of women leaders. Organizations can do this by creating inclusive organizational culture, values and policies, using a “sponsorship” culture within financial service providers and policy making institutions to build a network of women mentors and mentees. In addition, collecting and analyzing organizational data on diversity and inclusion. She made the importance of organizational data in tackling biases clear through an anecdote; “recently I was having a conversation with an institution who said, “I’m not sure why we are spending so much time hiring and training women, when they get married and have children they leave the organization”. We started going through their data and it turned out that women had a much higher retention rate than men, it was just a bias they had. By being able to look at that data and ask the hard questions you can determine what the path forward is”.

Cavelle Dove, Lead for Women’s Economic Empowerment at UNCDF in Myanmar, also remarked on the critical role of data, particularly in understanding and addressing women’s needs. She also drew on a recent study into women’s demand for financial services in conflict and post conflict affected regions to highlight the need to raise women’s awareness of available products and build environments in which they feel comfortable learning about those products. She spoke of the power of the “sister approach”: “women have been helping other women from time beyond, so it’s vital to work women who can then share the news of what’s been helpful to them and how that might be helpful to others. For example, there was one woman we worked with in Kachin State who was not interested at all at first, but after the time was spent to understand the product and its benefit she eventually became one of the strongest advocates for this financial service”.

How do we identify the gatekeepers and unlock the gates?

Gatekeepers are people or institutions with the power to help or hinder access to a resource. Increasing attention is being paid to the need to engage the gatekeepers that control women’s participation in the digital economy. However, there is a paucity of extensive research that lists who these gatekeepers are and how to engage them effectively and appropriately.

The first discussion was focused on identifying and engaging the gatekeepers that prevent women’s access and usage of phones. Firstly, the participants identified a number of gatekeepers such as: husbands and male family members, religious leaders, regulators, teachers, but also “older generation women”. Then, they presented a number of solutions to engage the gatekeepers in a culturally appropriate way, including interventions such as digital literacy training, sisterhood learning programmes, and the empowerment of women as role models within their family and community. A strong reference that shares best practices on these and more is the “I’d Blush if I Could” Report from UNESCO. Finally, the group suggested ways to measure the success and impact of interventions=. For example, through the size of the mobile gender gap and internet usage; the number of women in the community who are using digital for economic, social and entertainment; the changes in values measured through the World Value Survey.

The last discussion of the session was aimed at recognizing the gatekeepers that control efforts to increase diversity and leadership in digital economies at scale. Regulatory bodies, men in leadership positions, and institutions that benefit from the status quo were all identified as gatekeepers. The group discussed engagement strategies including improving diversity and inclusion training, demonstrating of the benefits of diverse management on the bottom line, developing the next generation of female leaders through technical assistance, and linking investment to diversity indicators. Suggested potential measures of success were the number of female decision-makers on a national scale; the number of girls aspiring to work in the financial sectors; the number of digital platforms that have a diverse leadership and, last but not least, the number of gender-sensitive women policies.

UNCDF will integrate these learnings into its activities while supporting the work of building inclusive digital economies in 28 countries, as well as co-leading the Economic Rights and Justice Coalition of the Generation Equality Forum.

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