The lowest rungs of the microfinance ladder are occupied by the poorest of borrowers in the world’s underdeveloped economies — and in many places the great majority of borrowers are women.

There is some difference of opinion on the benefit of this gender bias. One view holds that when men see women successfully turn microloans into income that supports the household (such as spending on education and health), men find their position as primary breadwinner threatened. Consequently, men frequently reduce their contribution to the household because they believe the size of the loans women wield is larger than it in fact is, and more friction ensues. The thinking here is that opening up borrowing opportunities to men would counteract these negative outcomes.

Other observers point to evidence that lending to women is more likely to result in better health and education levels for the household overall than lending to men, as men tend to spend surplus disproportionately on alcohol, tobacco and gambling at the expense of supporting the household. Proponents say that the gender bias produces an empowerment effect: not only is lending to women more likely to result in better health and education levels for the household, but it can be a transformative experience for other members of the household to see a women leading the household, managing a loan, working and bringing home money. There is still little empirical evidence about the consequences of the gender bias or what happens when efforts are made to counteract the bias by extending loans to men.

My colleagues Beatriz Armendariz of Harvard and University College London and Nigel Roome of the Free University of Brussels and Tilberg University have done some excellent preliminary work in Mexico investigating the bias question. Anecdotal evidence suggests that female borrowers do find it more difficult to manage their relationships with their male counterparts over tensions about money and power in the household. One proposed remedy is to involve men in borrowing groups (most microlending depends on a group dynamic to succeed and many groups are open only to women) to foster a sense of participation in lending and some parity in the household. In Mexico, when men were brought into the borrowing group, loan officers reported more investment overall, higher repayment rates, more sharing of both business and household chores and management, and decreases in household tensions.

Studies by others found that, in Africa, the empowerment factor is inconsistent and largely dependent on differences in regions and households; research in Bangladesh suggests that women borrowers frequently cede control to their husbands when choosing how to invest.

This evidence is noteworthy, but I caution against embracing this approach too soon. Until we know more about which practices produce the best outcomes and how they vary by geography and culture, we should view gender bias as a good thing that we should work to keep intact.

My own view is that it is preferable to forgo a certain parity in order that the next generation sees women as the primary breadwinners in households, even if that might extract a psychological cost on the household in the form of marital tensions. Because women are discriminated against in so many cultures it is a transformative experience to grow up with a female head of household. That alone argues for allowing the bias to persist.

Professor Suresh Sundaresan is the editor of Microfinance: Emerging Trends and Challenges. You can read more in a Q&A with Professor Sundaresan in this month’s issue of Ideas at Work.

Photo credit: McKay Savage