Women and Mobile: Is It Really a Global Opportunity?

Posted by admin on Mar 08, 2010

This review was written by Anne-Ryan Heatwole with Katrin Verclas.

Today is International Women's Day and as we do every year, we are looking at the complex and intriguing issue of women and mobile technology around the world.  A new report, “Women and Mobile: A Global Opportunity,” by the GSMA Development Fund, the Cherie Blair Foundation and Vital Wave Consulting, tackles the issue of the gender gap in mobile phone usage with a focus on low- and middle-income countries. 

The report gathered its data through field research, and surveys of 2000 women in four countries (Bolivia, Egypt, India and Kenya), in-depth interviews with mobile telecommunications leaders and academics, and statistical analysis of outside data sources (the GSMA’s Wireless Intelligence Database, statistics from the United Nations, and others). The report found:

"A woman is still 21% less likely to own a mobile phone than a man. This figure increases to 23% if she lives in Africa, 24% if she lives in the Middle East, and 37% if she lives in South Asia. Closing this gender gap would bring the benefits of mobile phones to an additional 300 million women."

The study divided women into five demographic groups in order to see how women used mobiles and what factors influenced their likelihood of mobile ownership. The groups were: women at the bottom of the pyramid, rural women at work, women in the home, women at school, and so-called career women. Among these groups of women, the report identified five factors that influenced whether a woman would be likely to own a phone. Those identifiers were: household income, living in an urban vs. rural location, age, occupation and education level. Not surprisingly, household income and location were found to have the most influence over phone ownership rates.

The Mobile Gender Gap

The study, in investigating this mobile ownership gender gap, notes some of the reasons why it exists, and quantifying what the gap means for women around the world: 

"To quantify the gender gap, one must understand the breakdown of male and female subscribers. Today, 1.4 billion, or 48% of the 2.9 billion males in low and middle income countries, benefit from mobile phone ownership. In contrast, just 1.1 billion, or 38% of the 2.9 billion females in these countries have mobile phones. This equals a mobile phone gender gap of 300 million women. […] Of the remaining 3.3. billion citizens of low and middle-income countries, there are 750 million females, or 26% of all female who could – but do not yet – benefit from mobile communications.” (meaning that others are outside of mobile network coverage, or are under the age of 14 or over the age of 74). 

The report states that if telecommunications providers closed the gender gap in mobile phone penetration, worldwide telecommunications revenue would increase by US $13 billion. It is noteworthy, of course, that the main client for this report is the trade association of GSM operators which, in an age of falling ARPU, have an interest in exploring new markets - i.e. women and promising demographics within that market - to sustain mobile growth and continue to increase revenue. 

Although the statistics are impressive, many of the report’s findings are expected: the report states that the gender gap corresponds with economic development, levels of education, and the role and cultural expectations of women in society.

Mobiles As Panacea? It's More Complicated...

The report repeatedly treats the idea of women and mobiles as a panacea that can increase women’s independence, encourage women-owned businesses and increase revenue of telecommunications companies. Unfortunately, there is not much new data included that would back up this claim. 

More complicated issues that we have discussed here before in regard to women's access, ownership, and benefits of mobile technology, such as greater femail poverty, sexism, or other gender disparities are not adequately addressed. The mere existence of a phone in a rural home or community does not mean that the women there will have access to the opportunities promised.

Case Studies Absent Data

However absent good data, the report does present a number case studies from around the world that illustrate how women in developing countries have used mobiles, how telecommunications companies have targeted women in their mobile campaigns, and how mobiles are being used to promote women’s issues. 

Many of the case studies show evidence of the power of mobiles for women in developing countries. A case study from Pakistan that worked with women’s literacy showed gains in acceptance from the local society after the men and women of the village realized the practical impact of the phone; in this study, women enrolled in literacy classes received phones that sent them text messages in Urdu in order for the students to continue practicing reading and writing outside of the classes.

Another case study showcased the marketing strategy of a telecom company in Afghanistan that targeted women buyers by appealing to the connectivity and security a phone could provide for a family. The case studies showed how mobiles had been used around the world: women (and men) in Mexico were given cell phones in order to create an SMS-based HIV support group (we featured this no-longer existent pilot project here); women in Kosovo used mobiles to bring together supporters in order to represent women’s needs during the drafting of the Kosovo constitution; in Senegal, the Jokko Initiative used mobiles to reinforce women’s literacy skills and appeal to the community’s interests (we previously wrote this case study up here); in Uganda, WOUGNET supported female farmers by answering livestock, agricultural and business questions over mobiles in addition to encouraging women to use ICT; in India, SEVA sends agricultural market information to members with mobiles. 

These case studies are the strongest part of “Women and Mobile,” because it showcases the actionable gains in the real world. Unfortunately, many of the case studies are centered around providing women with free phones and donated air time; it is unclear if all of the programs would have functioned as well if the women and their families were responsible for self-providing the funds for the mobiles and any subsequent costs. In order to take advantage of the undeniable benefits mobiles can provide to women in the low- and middle-income world, it’s necessary to have a realistic look at how to make access sustainable and affordable. 


The report concludes with an action plan for how to get mobiles to women, stating that “to realize this opportunity, dedicated strategies and programmes must be created and implemented. Actions must be taken by all major stakeholders – the mobile telecommunications industry, development organizations and policymakers – to realize the mWomen opportunity.” The report then outlines how each of these segments can encourage mobile phone ownership among women. 

The mobile telecommunications industry is advised to “specifically address women in segmentation strategies and marketing tactics, position the phone as a life enhancing and income generating tool, understand and operate within a local culture and leverage alternative financing mechanisms and channels.”

The development community is advised to “leverage alternative financing mechanisms and channels, create innovative programmes to increase women’s mobile ownership rates, promote the mobile phone as an effective development tool that creates education, health, employment, banking and business opportunities and help identify culturally relevant and acceptable ways of promoting mobile phone ownership amongst women.”

Policymakers are advised to “shift the tax burden away from the poorest in society of which women are the majority and create incentives for the development of mobile services that benefit women.” All stakeholders are advised to “collaborate for maximum impact, designate high-profile champions of mobile phones for women and conduct further research to advance understanding of women and mobiles phones.” 

It’s good to see that the study acknowledges that there is a lot of work to be done by many different groups in order to close the mobile gender gap. Studies like “Women and Mobile” that highlight the gains that are being made in the industry while documenting current disparities will do inform key players of what needs to be done. However, it is not enough to provide a survey of events.  We need better and more nuanced data on the complex issues surrounding women's use, access to, ownership of, and benefits of mobile technology.  Additionally, pointing out what needs to be done without offering a harder-hitting analysis of financial sustainability does little good for the stakeholders and the women who stand to gain from mobile ownership. While “Women and Mobile” is a great start, it will be truly interesting to see what the stakeholders do with the information.

Image courtesy of "Women and Mobile" report

Women and Mobile: Is It Really a Global Opportunity? data sheet 7460 Views
Countries: Bolivia Egypt India Kenya

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