April 15, 2024

Building Advanced Operations

Crafting Success, Building Futures

Gender Inclusion for Women Social Entrepreneurs

Collage of Black women entrepreneurs
(Image courtesy of Mesh)

Women worldwide, especially in low-income countries, face many barriers to entrepreneurship, including limited access to capital, harassment, and violence. It’s easy to assume that online services and opportunities lessen these barriers—that women can freely network, sell, borrow, and skill up to make their ventures a success without the biases they face in the physical world. Yet research shows that digital platforms in and of themselves don’t create equal playing fields. Taking on a digital marketing gig, for example, requires upfront capital for a laptop, reliable Internet access, professional software, and access to data—capital that is harder for them to get. The World Bank estimates that the total micro, small, or medium enterprise finance gap for women is $1.7 trillion.

Successes like Bumble Bizz, a networking app that lessens harassment by having women be the first to initiate any male-female connection, and CARE’s Village Savings and Loan Associations, a credit program specifically for women entrepreneurs, might lead us to think that we can make a product work for female entrepreneurs only if we rebuild it entirely to their needs. However, while creating equitable online environments demands research and effort, it doesn’t necessarily require the reinvention of existing products and platforms. Any organization looking to break down barriers for women entrepreneurs online and become more gender inclusive can take steps to do so without fundamentally changing their product.

Toward a More Balanced User Base

Our work at Mesh, a professional social network for young people aged 18-35 in the Kenyan informal economy, offers an example. Since 2021, 160,000 young entrepreneurs have joined the platform, and our user base is growing. While 85 percent of Kenya’s economy is informal and adds $530 million to the economy each month, its potential is largely ignored. Young entrepreneurs often lack access to credit and have little skill-building support. “Meshers” join the community for free to get information from peers about starting and growing their businesses; to advertise; and to meet customers, mentors, and suppliers. We also partner with corporates that offer gig work and services for Meshers, such as sales gigs for brands like Unilever, mentorship by Deloitte, or affordable credit from 4G capital.

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In the platform’s early days, the female user base was smaller than the male user base, with about 30 percent women to 70 percent men. A nearly equal proportion of men and women make up the informal economy, so we knew this ratio was off. We also saw that women on the platform were far less vocal. As a result, Mesh gave the impression that it was a male space and, by extension, that the business world is a man’s world.

In 2023, gender inclusion became our team’s top priority, and today—following research, experimentation, and tweaks to our design—our user base is nearly 50-50. Posts and comments by women have almost doubled, and female users are far more active in group activities and network-building on the platform. Engagement among women is now at 72 percent, from a mere 21 percent. The changes also made the user experience better for men, resulting in better results across the board. And we did all this without significant changes to our product.

Organizations large and small can take steps to make their products and platforms more equitable. Here are six things we did to move the dial.

1. Find out what women value and what is holding them back.

Figuring out how to design for inclusion doesn’t happen in the boardroom. Organizations need to pass the microphone to their existing female user base, as well as to women who aren’t yet using their product.

We ultimately ran 57 one-on-one interviews with a mix of men and women users and non-users, all led by a gender expert. We also ran a two-day focus group discussion with men and women, followed by one with only women. One of the main insights we uncovered was that women value different aspects of the platform than men. While men generally see sales gigs as an income stream, for example, women see them as a way to save up capital to start their own business. Our research also clearly showed that safety for women is non-negotiable. Faced with harassment and safety issues in gigs that require them to be onsite, we found that women highly valued information on gigs they could do entirely online. In addition, while men tended to connect with other young people in business one-to-one, women valued group support.

In response to these findings, we looked for more corporate partners that could provide remote gigs. We also doubled down on creating articles and video content that met the needs of women, such as targeted how-to articles, videos of women sharing their stories about online jobs, and skill-building videos on digital marketing. We also started a women-only group within the larger network and a mentorship program that matches women who want to be mentors with mentees looking for professional support and guidance.

Woman giving presentation on using AI images
Mesh creator Peris teaches Meshers how to use artificial intelligence to create images for marketing materials. (Image courtesy of Mesh)

To address feedback on safety, we began advising partners on women’s safety and now include tips on how they can make gigs safer for women. We also simplified our community guidelines from an extensive document in English with a lot of legal language, to just six short rules in local vernacular on what is and isn’t acceptable behavior on Mesh. We placed these in a more prominent location on the platform and now share safety tips with all users at least monthly.

2. Run a brand audit to discover what unintended signals you are sending.

Organizations consciously or unconsciously send messages about who their product or service is and isn’t for. It’s important to consider whether the target audience excludes groups based on gender, ability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or other identity. Most Western outdoor brands, for example, have just woken up to the fact that they predominantly target white people, perpetuating the myth that people of color are not interested in the outdoors or concerned about climate change.

So, we asked: What message are we sending to men and women about who Mesh is for, and what message are we sending about the role of women as entrepreneurs? To find out, we ran a brand audit analyzing our digital ads, app store listing, social media posts, and messaging within the platform to see what percentage of messages featured women and how they were represented.

We found that women were represented in only 30 of approximately 100 messages. The user stories we promoted featured male and female entrepreneurs almost equally, but almost all of the women were in traditionally gendered industries like beauty salons or catering. We also noticed that our female content creators had promotional roles, while male creators were featured as topic experts.

These were hard truths to face, but they gave us a start to make fundamental changes. First, we hired a female digital marketing content expert and a female finance content expert. This boosted the representation of women on the platform overall and highlighted their expertise. We also pushed our content producers to seek out more businesswomen who could share tips with users and role model behavior. Early on, many women were hesitant to participate, making it easier for the team to just work with the men, who were quick to say yes. But with a little extra effort and encouragement from the team, the number of women who agreed to participate grew, and the more women we featured, the more women wanted to be featured.

3. Work gender inclusivity into every aspect of the design process.

Applying a gender lens should not be a checkbox at the end of any given project but a basic requirement in everything an organization designs.

When Mesh started, we didn’t gather gender-disaggregated user data, so we couldn’t see the distinct behavior of male or female users—whether the content they consumed or how they engaged with the platform differed. Our new focus prompted us to break down data by gender to make stronger, data-informed decisions across the company.

Originally, the personas (fictional profiles that represent similar user groups) we used to inform product development included one for the early-stage entrepreneur and one for the more-advanced entrepreneur. Instead, we decided to switch to gender-based personas to help us explicitly target women entrepreneurs’ needs and changed our approach to user research. Our research groups now always balance the number of male and female participants; we consider barriers like childcare and transportation in deciding where to conduct research sessions; and we sometimes separate women and men in focus groups to allow women to speak more freely.

Finally, to capture these lessons and ensure that we incorporate a gender lens in everything we do, we created a product design playbook that documents best practices and that we will continue to update as we go.

4. Run experiments to determine the right thing to do.

People working on a team often have very different and opposing professional and personal perspectives, and don’t always have the confidence or the words to make discussions about gender issues productive. Experiments can help teams determine the right thing to do.

At the suggestion of starting a women-only group on Mesh, for example, some team members feared a possible backlash from male users who feel that society today gives women preferential treatment and an unfair advantage. Some team members suggested that we create a men-only group to keep things balanced, but others felt that it would encourage men and women to network separately, setting women back even further. The conversation stalled there—until we decided to start the women-only group as an experiment and find out. The feared backlash didn’t happen, and the group is now an accepted fact of life.

Another awkward conversation emerged when we noticed in the brand audit that the female creators we featured in videos were trying to appear attractive by posing and styling themselves with full professional makeup and sometimes revealing clothing. This starkly contrasted with the men we featured, who appeared casually dressed in hoodies and beanies. Some team members felt the women were simply aiming to look their best, while others felt the styling reinforced a sexist standard and perpetuated the idea that a woman is respected for her looks, not her business acumen.

In the end, we recruited two female entrepreneurs who had a different type of styling and found that Mesh users received them just as well. In fact, we realized that diversity among the women featured was just as important as the gender balance.

5. Design human resource policies that address the needs of women.

Building a diverse user base requires a diverse team. If organizations want to make their products and platforms gender-inclusive, they have to shine the spotlight internally too, and design human resource processes and policies that meet the needs of women employees and contractors.

Mesh has a team of 16 hosts and moderators to start conversations and introduce users to each other while protecting them from scams and harassment. Despite recruitment targets, we found that, just like female users, women were under-represented and less vocal compared to men. They also faced challenges like not being able to attend on-site training due to late-stage pregnancy or difficulty finding childcare.

When we started looking at the team’s performance data by gender, an interesting pattern emerged. Male moderators spent much more time on the platform, pulled down more posts, and started many more conversations than their female colleagues. But women moderators performed better when we looked at engagement quality—they tended to start more meaningful conversations.

Quality of engagement is hard to get from standard reporting. If we measured performance only by the number of tasks completed, we might see female team members as less effective. So for us, until we can measure quality engagement automatically, the performance review will be manual.

6. Make gender targets a regular component of your overall targets.

Though there are some exceptions, and it’s important to consider what information isn’t captured by data, there is still truth to the idea of “what gets measured gets managed.” Setting clear targets for women and measuring progress throughout the year ensures that gender inclusion doesn’t fall off the radar.

Our in-house knowledge and learning team now uses a framework that measures the input, output, outcomes, and ultimate impact of our gender program. Every Monday morning, we look at our data from the previous week with the entire team. Whereas we used to focus on overall user registrations, retention, and engagement, we now also look at that data with a gender lens, including how many women signed up, started conversations, sent direct messages to other members, and joined groups.

We also measure our progress monthly, quarterly, and annually, so that results don’t disappear from our priority list after a particular gender program wraps up. More specifically, we start by listing the inputs: activities aimed at advancing the needs of women throughout the year. We then look at the direct output for each activity in the short term, and in the first 3-6 months of our interventions, we split our user acquisition campaigns by gender. Tracking our campaigns in this way has allowed us to see that they have directly resulted in new female users joining the platform in greater numbers, that the percentage of conversations women start is going up, and that women are sharing more of their business wisdom and questions.

The intermediate outcome we’re aiming for is an increase in women’s financial performance and more women applying to gigs via Mesh. And long term, we want to see that women Meshers are more likely than their peers to engage in decent work, and use their income to create financial stability for themselves and their households.

We’re gathering this data via independent third-party impact measurement companies and surveys asking users to self-report progress in detailed questionnaires, but for organizations that don’t have the funds to hire an impact measurement organization, surveys with a good sample set of your user base can be a great substitute.

Benefits for Everyone

In addition to the lessons above, we learned that when you do better for women users, you do better for all users. Articles and videos on topics like digital marketing that women value, for example, perform better with all users aged 18-35 than content on traditional, non-remote gigs. And videos that represent both men and women in non-traditional gender roles perform better than those that feature them in traditional roles. Videos featuring a female taxi company owner and a male nail technician, for example, are among our best-performing videos this year.

Black woman entrepreneur talking about business opportunities
Entrepreneur Janet shares the challenges and opportunities of running a taxi business, how much she invested, and what to expect in revenue on good and bad days. (Image courtesy of Mesh)

Other efforts—such as tailoring welcome messages for women or men based on needs identified in our focus groups and segmenting ads by gender—have boosted retention and conversion rates across both groups. In just the first month, our retention rate increased from 17 percent to an average of 24 percent, and our conversion rate on ads went from 0.85 percent to 2.5 percent.

Our gender focus over the past year has led to great results. Now that we have the right mindset and foundation, we’re on our way to truly leveling the playing field for women entrepreneurs online, and we encourage every organization to build gender diversity into their strategy instead of considering it a separate program and a cost to the business.

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Read more stories by Anne Miltenburg.