The unbearable sexism of Bank PHB's Pink Account
By Chidi Odinakalu
IN the January 1928 issue of World's Work, just on the eve of the Great Depression, Will Payne took pains to explain the difference between a gambler and an investor. The gambler, he said, wins only because someone loses; with investment, all are winners.
Bank PHB's newly launched Pink Account dramatizes the crisis of values in Nigeria's financial services sector and its insularity from both global standards and the realities of the work-a-day Nigerian. Unduly focused on an over-banked minority in an economy in which most of the money is unbanked, our financial services sector appears more interested in under-writing gambling than investment. The Pink Account illustrates this on an egregious scale.
The story would have been difficult enough to believe had someone else transmitted it. It was the beginning of a new week on November 10, 2008 and Nigerian newspapers were agog with pictures of proud officials of Bank PHB at the launch of a new product. The name? Pink Account. The back page of The Guardian on the same day reported that "Bank PHB has launched a product exclusively tailored to meet the growing needs of women. Tagged 'Pink Account', the product will give the modern woman access to credit to purchase jewellery, household items and baby care products". On the same day, a similar report appeared on page 35 of Thisday. Promotional material issued by the Bank subsequently disclose amid an assortment of images of jewellery and trinkets, that the facility of the Pink Account is available for expenditure on ornaments valued at not less than one hundred and fifty thousand Naira.
Historically the anchor of both values and economic activities in our country, women - as a special constituency of the marginalised - have always had difficulties with accessing credit. Even when they meet and exceed the regular requirements, the prospective female is more likely than not to be asked for evidence of the consent of her husband, spouse or other presumed male principal.
It should ordinarily be good news that a banker has designed a product tailored to address these difficulties that women have with access to credit but there are too many things wrong with the Pink Account to warrant Hossana. To begin with, the conflation of baby products and jewellery in one access model for credit is preposterously distasteful. Baby care is often a necessity; jewellery isn't. It takes two people to make babies but only one person to wear ornaments. There is no reason why women have to bear the burden of securing credit for baby products, when every baby has a father and a mother. Moreover, baby-care products generally have a constituency defined by the generation of women of reproductive age and their spouses or inseminators. There is no such generational cachet for jewellery.
The Pink Account is presumptuous and patronising. Pray, on what basis did the Bank PHB conclude that the most pressing needs that women in Nigeria have is a credit binge for trinkets? Who says that the market for credit to women for entrepreneurship, investment or skill development is saturated?
The Pink Account is devoid of investment or economic justification. Quite clearly, anyone with a credit card can post the purchase of trinkets or ornaments as consumption on the card without the need to access a bespoke credit line. The objective of creating this ornamented trinket facility for women is not entirely clear. Whatever it is, it seems much closer to gambling than investment. No one ever suggested that jewellery worth a minimum of one hundred and fifty thousand Naira is a necessity.
Both gambling and credit management require a theory of risk. In gambling, the Casino controls the chips; in banking, the asymmetry of power ought to be minimised by information and rationality. In his 1978 hit, the Gambler, country music great, Kenny Rogers immortalised this reality in verse:
Ev'ry gambler knows that the secret to survivin'
Is knowin' what to throw away and knowing what to keep.
'Cause ev'ry hand's a winner and ev'ry hand's a loser,
And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.
A theory or model of risk underlying the Pink Account is difficult to fathom. A person whose desire for ornamented trinkets overwhelms their domestic economics may be in the throes of a cashflow crisis, advanced escape from reality, or congenitally conspicuous existence. The purchase of jewellery, can hardly be justified as the priority of a person experiencing temporary cashflow problems even in a world in which investment values are migrating from equities and real estate to precious metals. On any of these, the putative Pink Account customer is hardly a model of creditworthiness. The odds are that she goes into this unequal gambling relationship as the presumptive loser. In the Pink Account, Bank PHB hopes it has dealt a winning hand by making its customers losers or, worse still, dead from compounded credit overhang.
Devoid of a theory of risk, this product is also lacking in social or financial responsibility. I have searched in vain for a more delicate way to put this but it is difficult to find any formulation to minimise the conclusion that the Pink Account is plainly sexist. Would any banker dare to put out a product designed exclusively for men to buy Rolex watches or designer-labelled Y-fronts?
On the even of her husband's elevation to the Presidency in 1797, Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, the second President of the United States pleaded with her husband thus: "In the new code of laws which I supposed it will be necessary for you to make, I desire that you would remember the ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors." Nearly one century later, in denying women access to legal education in Bradwell v. Illinois 83 US 130, 141 (1873), the US Supreme Court claimed that "....nature herself has always recognized a wide difference in the respective destinies of man and woman.....The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life."
Add another century and on the eve of the infamous Tennis Battle of the Sexes in 1973 and Bobby Riggs whom Billie Jean King beat resoundingly in that match boasted: "When I get through with Billie, she might go home and start raising a family. That's where women should be, barefoot and pregnant. Then they can't get out." Centuries of change-advocacy by women have failed to break the inherent sexism of our bankers. In the Pink Account, Bank PHB elevates centuries of sexism into a banking product with a sting in the tail. This is not banking; it is gambling.
* Odinkalu, a legal practitioner, lives in Abuja.