Teenager helping her grandmother updating account at her retail fruit store, Malaysia / iStock

26 May 2021

Financial inclusion key to women entrepreneurs’ success

AFI reached out to women leaders in its network to share their insight on women’s empowerment and the important role women play in financial inclusion. This interview features Datuk Nor Shamsiah Mohd Yunus, Governor of Bank Negara Malaysia.

Datuk Nor Shamsiah Mohd Yunus

AFI: Why is financial inclusion, and specifically women’s financial inclusion, important to you?

The pandemic has underscored the importance of leaving no one behind, economically or socially. A key enabler for this is to ensure fair and equitable access to financial services.

One of Bank Negara Malaysia’s primary functions is to promote a sound, progressive and inclusive financial sector. In discharging this function, Bank Negara Malaysia seeks to close gaps in access to financial service, including those affecting women.

Financial inclusion is equally, if not more important, for women. With women constituting half of the population, their role in the development of their local communities and national economies is critical. However, almost one billion women continue to be excluded from formal financial services, with a global gender gap of nine percent.

With fair and equitable access to quality financial services, women will be empowered to make informed decisions and have access to opportunities for wealth creation and preservation. This will not only benefit them, but also their families and wider society. Access to financial services can improve women’s income-earning potential, making them more likely to invest in their health, education, and business, as well as better able to manage financial emergencies.

AFI: What are unique qualities that women leaders can bring to an organization?

We are fortunate to have many talented Malaysian women join Bank Negara Malaysia to serve the nation. Around half of our workforce are women, and women are well represented at all levels, including in leadership. The benefits of the unique perspective that women bring to the table are obvious.

Some say that women tend to have more empathy, while also being more compassionate and nurturing. But for me, what is important is that having women representation at all levels of the organization ensures that the workplace benefits from different perspectives, points of view and approaches that come from different life experiences. It is also especially important for the composition of organizations like Bank Negara Malaysia to be representative of the stakeholders we serve. With women forming half of our population, it is obvious why female perspectives in policy making is important.

A multiplicity of perspectives can also spark creativity and innovation. These strengthen the performance and resiliency of an organization. This is borne out by studies that find greater representation of women at the leadership or Board level to be associated with better performance.

AFI: What are the biggest opportunities on financial inclusion for women?

Definitely a more inclusive economy for women. While there is no significant gender gap in access to financial services (i.e. account ownership and access to credit), women-owned businesses constitute only around 20 percent of total SMEs[1] in Malaysia. This is an obvious disparity that needs to be addressed, as women are no less competent than men when it comes to entrepreneurship.

The labour force participation rate for women in Malaysia could also be higher. At 55.6 percent, it is above the world average of 47 percent, but below the 60 percent observed in developed countries[2],[3]. This represents a tremendous opportunity to ensure a greater involvement of women in businesses and the economy. One of the critical factors contributing to this existing gap is the burden of household and care responsibilities that women continue to shoulder.

To boost economic growth, policymakers should ensure that it is easy for women to participate in the economy.Greater inclusion is important to ensure that Malaysia will transition to a high-income and developed nation status.

AFI: With Malaysia as one of the leaders in SME finance in our network, what are the lessons that you can share on the importance of SME policies for women-owned and women-led enterprises?

In Malaysia, our financial inclusion policies have always been broad based in nature. Our focus has been to develop a holistic and comprehensive financial inclusion framework to ensure sustainable progression and outreach to all segments of the population, especially the under-served.

Importantly, our policies are formulated based on evidence from the financial inclusion demand side surveys (conducted every three years) to determine where the gaps are, and target interventions accordingly. Through this, we are able to formulate and implement evidence-based policies.

Our experience with such surveys, on top of engagements with key stakeholders such as the Government, financial institutions and SMEs themselves, so far suggests that the challenges to access to financing for male- and female-owned SMEs are no different. However, there are several lessons which I believe can help promote and strengthen women entrepreneurship. These include:

  1. Ensuring that help is available for women entrepreneurs. This includes organizing outreach and awareness programmes to improve financial literacy and financial management.
  2. Ensuring that avenues are available for entrepreneurs, including women, to seek information and redress. This must be easily accessible and widely available.
  3. Building confidence and reducing anxiety in the use of financial services. This is important especially for services that they might be unfamiliar with, for example, when promoting the adoption of e-payments. 

AFI: What is your message to women in your institution and in our network, across the world, especially during the challenging times of COVID-19 pandemic?

The pandemic has reshaped society and is a rallying call to build a world that is more inclusive, fair and sustainable for all. In this environment, it is important that we continue supporting and enabling women so that they are not left behind. There are studies emerging which suggest that women are being impacted more negatively by the pandemic, given their challenges faced in having to balance family and work priorities. Only by working together, can we come out stronger from this these challenging times.

While I recognise that there is still a lot of work to be done on this front, it is also encouraging to note that there is an increase in awareness globally on the importance of inclusion and urgency to consider a whole-of-society approach. This includes ensuring that women have a voice not only in the conversation but also in the decision-making process.

Lastly, my wish is for women to remain strong, keep believing in yourself and keep inspiring others. 



1 Dept of Statistics Malaysia, 2016 National Economic Census

2 The World Bank (2020), Labor force participation rate, female (% of female population ages 15+)

3 Dept. of Statistics Malaysia, Statistics on Women Empowerment in Selected Domains, 2020


AFI’s Gender Inclusive Finance workstream is financed by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and others.

© Alliance for Financial Inclusion 2009-2024