Thought Leadership

Sex-disaggregated data - what it means for women, innovation and payment companies

Ross McGee
Ross McGee

When it comes to commerce, finance, technology and women, there are a lot of conflicts. On the one hand, women are a target audience for some of the most valuable industries, on the other, they are the least financially compensated. On one hand, FinTech companies typically have low female representation, on the other, technology has a huge potential to improve the lives of women.

The result of these contradictions contributes to the indisputable fact that inequity for women still exists (which is why it is this year’s theme for International Women’s Day); however, why it continues to persist is less clear cut. In the twenty-first century, you would like to think that it is not due to sexism, although this cannot be ruled out. Another reason could lie in the lack of sex-disaggregated data which is collected. For instance, when it comes to the efficacy of medicines for heart-related problems, studies are overwhelmingly only conducted on men and women are discounted. Even more absurdly, when it comes to researching the safety of those in industries such as mining and construction, it has been known for female participants to be effectively erased from results as “confounding factors”. Again, the cause for this being the case is certainly up for debate, but one thing is for sure – it is damaging the lives of women and innovation.

The impact of collecting sex-disaggregated data is by no means limited to medicine and health and safety, it affects every industry (let’s not forget that women make up 49.5% of the world’s population), including that of payments. So how can a commitment to collecting and using sex-disaggregated data lead to better outcomes for women and payment companies alike? Let’s explore a few instances.

Payment Terminals and Public Transport

Just like how moving funds is a sign of a healthy economy, humans also benefit from moving. It helps us keep active, experience new things and interact with others. Where the movement of payments and of individuals crossover, is that of public transport.

In bustling cities such as London, 5 million people make a journey on the tube every day and pay for the privilege to do so. In particular, women are more likely to use public transport than men. However, despite this, transport infrastructure isn’t always necessarily built with women in mind. This is especially true when it comes to payment terminals at ticket barriers in tube or train stations.

Although not always true, it is more likely that women will spend more time than men pushing strollers. Alongside their children, women also often place purchased items from shops and their handbags in strollers. The contents of a stroller can therefore only be described as both precious and valuable. With women’s fear factor being double that of men when it comes to waiting on platforms and travelling on trains and the underground, women are no doubt reluctant to even partially let go of strollers whilst in busy stations. Yet this is forced upon them due to the placing of payment terminals on ticket barriers.

The typical position of payment terminals on top of barriers might seem convenient to most but for those who have their hands full with a stroller which they are protective over, it is more than just a nuisance. Logistically, there is no way for stroller pushers to tap their payment device without letting go of their stroller with at least one hand.

A better – and safer – solution which payment terminal companies could develop for those who push strollers would be that of a device which would strap to the side of a stroller and align with a payment terminal which is placed on the inside right side of a ticket barrier. This would allow strollers to be wheeled into an enclosed space of a ticket barrier (where thieves would find more difficult to get to), and automatically initiate a payment without their owner ever having to let go.

Admittedly, expansion of such ticket barriers would take up more space but that shouldn’t get in the way of equity. Plus, if payment terminal providers were to work with transport networks to provide sex-disaggregated data, based on the increased likelihood of women pushing strollers, they could pinpoint prime locations which would make the most impact for women by their inclusion.

Spending in the present

Along with how the collection and proper use of sex-disaggregated data can help people navigate the world, the same is true when it comes to the movement of money. This is especially true now that digital payments allow for masses of data to be collected.

Although it might feel as though voice assistants have been with us for decades, they are still a contemporary development. Yet their adoption hasn’t been equally easy for women due to a flaw with the data which was used to create them, having consequences for voice activated payments.

For consumers, these devices are perceived as useful tools when you are unable to reach for your phone to Google a question, check the score of a match, or skip to your favorite song. From within the home, having your hands full is traditionally something experienced by women much more than men. Think cooking dinner or attending to whatever chaos children might be making. On the face of it, voice assistants should therefore be liberating for women.

The parent companies of Alexa and Nest however saw these devices as an opportunity to boost online sales from within the home. This ambition is yet to materialise, with most people instead using Alexa to check the weather. Incomprehensibly, despite being aimed to be used within the home – and 97% of American home-makers being female – Google’s best-in class speech-recognition software is 70% more likely to understand male voices than female speech. The reason why? When training speech-recognition software, the most popular training database used voice recordings which were 69% male. Consequently, what seemed like a good idea by the likes of Amazon and Google has failed to transpire in the way they wished. Who knows what impact voice assistant payments might have had if there had been the intuition to train them with cohorts which were sex-disaggregated to reflect the real-world population. Instead, female perspective has been grossly overlooked, disadvantaging both women and the payments industry.

Spending in the future

Following the failures of design in voice activated payments, the question is – will this happen again with the advent of the Metaverse? It’s been touted as a virtual environment which will be accessible for everyone with a massive benefit being the ability to go anywhere, experience anything, and meet anyone in seconds. The unparalleled opportunity presented by the Metaverse therefore makes it an environment which nobody wishes to miss out on.

However, it is already on track to exclude if its current payments systems are not set to evolve. The presiding way to trade in the Metaverse is cryptocurrency yet women are typically less likely to own this form of currency. However, further sex-based barriers exist regarding the Metaverse which is predicted to have over $5 trillion spent within it every year by 2030!

Despite development of this transformational technology being very young, problems which disproportionately affect women are already arising. Firstly, VR headsets are being designed to sizes which don’t fit the average woman, ruining the experience of the Metaverse which is meant to be immersive, not something which slips off your head. These headsets can also cause women to feel unwell – a far stronger reason for women to refrain from the virtual world. Ultimately, both of these issues are prime examples of challenges which could have never even arisen if research and development did not presume that data based on men was universal, and instead considered female requirements too.

Whilst these problems won’t necessarily lock out women from the metaverse across the board, it could potentially lead to them refraining from engaging with it and all the benefits which it is said to deliver for future generations. Technology and finance companies therefore must begin to disaggregate data based on sex and put it to good use to make the Metaverse the universally accessible place of opportunity it claims to be.

Car Insurance

For the time being, most of us aren’t able to drop into another planet via the Metaverse. Instead, driving remains the most popular mode of transport in the developed world. However, for people to enjoy driving, they must all have car insurance.

Given the enormous numbers of drivers on roads, insurance firms hold funds from millions of clients. These are either returned, spent to provide cover, or remain with insurance firms. The movement of these funds must, at the very least, be reconciled. However, as discovered by Sheilas’ Wheels, analysis of the transferring of funds offered both a business opportunity and benefits for women.

By sex-disaggregating car insurance data, the minds behind Sheilas’ Wheels realised that women were less likely to be involved in claims. As a result, the risk they posed to insurers was on average smaller than that of men. This led to the creation of Sheilas’ Wheels in 2005 – originally a car insurance firm which offered cheaper rates for women.

The benefits to arise from Sheilas’ Wheels making the effort to assess sex-disaggregated data were not only felt in monetary terms. By understanding the needs of women as separate as men, and conducting research to inform this, new forms of car insurance cover were created. For instance, handbag insurance made it into Sheilas’ Wheels’ comprehensive cover, and all their repairers were trained on how to work with young families given the increased likelihood of female drivers doing school runs – a prime example of equity thanks to taking a sex-disaggregated data approach to innovation.

Calculating the cost of unpaid work

Women getting a better financial deal is something of an outlier in the greater scheme of things. This is startling when considering that totalling paid and unpaid work together reveals that women typically spend an extra 2.6 hours per week working compared to men. Despite this, the gender pay gap still exists and so too does inequality when it comes to unpaid work.

In fact, women and girls are estimated to contribute $10.8 trillion each year to the global economy through unpaid labour. From caring for elderly relatives to household cleaning, unpaid work regularly falls on the shoulders of women. With women on average spending between three and six hours on unpaid care work per day, and men spending between half an hour and two hours, it is easy to question whether the Victorian doctrine of the private sphere being for women, and the public sphere being for men, is in fact still in force today.

Just because calculating the cost of unpaid work on an individual basis might be difficult to achieve, doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be attempted. In colloquial instances it has already been shown to alter individuals’ respect for women. Achieving this on a mass scale however can also be done through some basic online calculators. Unfortunately, these developments are quite rudimentary, leaving them open to people questioning their accuracy. Payment companies could however settle this debate once and for all.

For instance, through collecting data upon how often women purchase products related to unpaid domestic work, payment companies could calculate an accurate estimate upon how much unpaid labour women do. With such data, these businesses could also do their bit to compensate women for their unpaid activities, discounting sales of the aforementioned items when purchased by women. This would by no means equate to the true value of women’s unpaid work, and a far better way to reach equality would be through men doing an equal share of such labour; however, it is an example of an application of sex-disaggregated data which could be taken by payment companies.

Know Your Customer

Having financial autonomy has long been something which women have campaigned for. Although it is a long time since the Married Women’s Property Act (1870) finally meant that women could own property independent to their husbands in the UK, it took until 1975 (under 50 years ago) for British women to be able to open a bank account in their own name. True control over personal finances is therefore by no means something to take for granted. For those who are not subject to coercive financial abuse, it might seem a very distant thought, but it can still be taken away from women in other ways.

For instance, in the digital era which we now live in, banks have a responsibility to verify customers. Previously, Know Your Customer amounted to a form of identification card and utility bill. However, it now also regularly includes facial recognition software. With pretty much everyone having unique facial features, this sounds like a good idea. However, yet again this technology is biased against women, specifically black women. Like in the creation of voice detection software, the cohorts used for facial technology overwhelmingly constitutes of white males. As a consequence of these cohorts not being sex-disaggregated in proportion to the actual population, black women frequently face being disenfranchised from their money.

Even when women do have complete access to their money, they might still be unable to use it as they wish. This all depends on whether merchants – from a business point of view – know their customers. Along with researching into audiences to inform product design, pricing and marketing, businesses should be mindful of which payment methods their customers prefer. There is no point in building a great product and attracting the right consumer, to only make it impossible to pay.

Businesses are aware of this when aiming to appeal to a global audience, choosing to adopt a variety of PSPs specifically for this reason. However, is it considered in terms of sex? Overwhelmingly, 75% of users of Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL) schemes such as Klarna and ClearPay are female. Access to such data is important for businesses and female consumers alike. It literally enables women to put their money to work.

Ultimately, whilst both the society and the law have important roles to play in ensuring that women have control of their own finances, they are not the only forces with this responsibility. With technology being renowned for moving faster than the law, FinTech companies must make sure that their innovations are informed by equally split sex-disaggregated data so that everyone has financial freedom, and that they share the outcomes of their research to merchants and other businesses.

Will the data be believed?

When it comes to creating an equitable society, a big challenge is making people consider and understand the situation of others. Unfortunately, too often a woman’s perspective has been dismissed. In other words, even before there was digital data, data of another form (female lived experienced and opinions) has been ignored.

Nowadays however it is common to hear the phrase, “the data doesn’t lie”. With payment companies having the ability to collect masses of sex-disaggregated data every second, there should therefore be no excuse for women to face any form of inequity when it comes to digital finances. Although data alone should provide a strong enough voice to deliver this, assurance should also be bolstered through promoting women in FinTech roles.

For women and payment companies alike, eradicating gender-based financial inequity would have massively positive ramifications, including potentially adding $12 trillion to the economy by 2025 should it help all women have access to a bank account. Such a success would undoubtedly elevate the lives of women in numerous ways, paving the way for greater influence.

Ultimately, despite the current misconception that data is a male domain, data and women can be a powerful combination for one another. After all, the original programmers and leaders in computer science when such technology came about in the early twentieth century were women. Fast-forward to today, data is overflowing for companies, generating endless pools of evidence on how to best serve both men and women. However, what is done with this data is what really matters. To turn sex-disaggregated data insights into reality, there must be the inclination to find them, believe them and – most importantly – take action which truthfully reflects them.

Ross McGee
Ross McGee

Content and Community Marketing Manager

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Ross McGee is a marketing manager at Aurum Solutions who deep dives into financial processes, technology, and best practices to share insights that help finance professionals of all levels maximise their potential.

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