Expanding Women’s Commercial Economic Activities

Microfinance services (microcredit, microsavings, and microinsurance) help bridge the gap between poor households and formal financial services by smoothing cash flow—particularly in times of shock—and building assets. One major selling point of microfinance, which helped elevate it to the status of being the United Nations’ "weapon against poverty and hunger," is its presumed ability to empower women by increasing their financial security, self-esteem, and bargaining power within the household. However rigorous studies of the impacts of microfinance suggest that its services help to improve the lives of some women, but not all. Microfinance helps women who have freedom of movement, autonomy, and large social networks. Although microfinance exhibits positive effects on its borrowers, these effects are not transformative. Microcredit may generate additional income for families and increase women's formal labor force participation, but the evidence is mixed: Some research points to women's improved agency in terms of decreasing fertility outcomes, and others find a lack of changes in the gender dynamics, gender equality or educational access in households. Even after an influx of capital, often female-owned microenterprises show significantly less income increases than male-owned enterprises, though, at the household level, households with female enterprises benefit as much as households with male enterprises. Expanding women’s commercial economic activities worldwide therefore remains a mixed promise, despite the large investment in providing microfinance services for the poor.

What We Can Do to Foster Women’s Entrepreneurship?

Microfinance alone cannot overcome the strict gender norms that often constrain women’s entrepreneurial opportunities. Programs that increase women’s social networks and that train adolescent girls before they enter the labor market have shown success in increasing women’s entrepreneurship.

Providing a grace period for loan repayment increases short-term business investment and long-term profits, but also default rates. Debt contracts that require early repayment discourage risky investment and limit the potential impact of microfinance on microenterprise growth and household poverty.

Microfinance programs that emphasize community and social contact as part of their programming with women lead to sustained social interaction among group members, greater willingness to share financial risk within the group and lower default rates.

Although both girls and boys face challenges in the labor market, adolescent girls face additional constraints due to restrictive social norms and expectations. Early marriage, childbirth, and family duties restrict girls’ opportunities and incentives to invest in their education, which adversely impacts their labor market participation. Job training coupled with life skills training for adolescent girls can empower women at earlier ages by increasing their income-generating opportunities, encouraging labor market participation, decreasing fertility and early marriages, and changing norms for adolescent girls.

Using financial incentives to motivate work and effort has been tested extensively in well-established companies in high-income countries, but how they affect (micro-) entrepreneurs in low-income countries is largely an open question. Standard financial incentives used to motivate employees in developed countries may actually crowd out the intrinsic motivation of micro-entrepreneurs in poor countries. For example, hairdressers in Zambia were more motivated to sell female condoms to their customers by non-financial incentives (when their performance was measured by publicly displayed stars, allowing for social comparisons with neighboring salons), rather than by financial incentives. While it is unclear how generalizable the specific findings are, it is important to note that non-financial motives can affect entrepreneurship and performance even among the very poor who face severe financial constraints.