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Why Women in Developing Countries Are Less Likely to Own a Phone Than Men

A survey of people in 11 low- and middle-income countries found women were on average 14 percent less likely to own a phone than men, and sometimes up to 38 percent.
March 2, 2015, 4:15pm
A woman using a mobile phone in Kenya. Image: Gates Foundation/Flickr

Mobile phones are seeing increased uptake across the developing world, but adoption of the tech isn't spread equally: Women are being left behind.

The gender gap in mobile phone use is the subject of a new report by the G​SMA, an association of nearly 800 mobile operators worldwide. Its investigation found women were on average 14 percent less likely to own a phone than men in 11 low- and middle-income countries.

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To put that in other terms: 200 million fewer women than men in these countries don't own phones. And when they do, they use them less than men.

The gap varies a lot from country to country: In South Asia, women were 38 percent less likely to own a phone. In Kenya, however, there's only a seven percent gap. The report authors put this down mainly to the widespread use of money tran​sfer system M-Pesa.

The women and men surveyed for the GSMA report—from Colombia, Mexico, Niger, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, India, China, and Indonesia—offered some of their own thoughts on how the tech could help women, from keeping in touch with friends and family to saving time, making them feel safer, and giving them more independence.

Why are women falling behind? The main barrier is pretty obvious: cost

In this respect, mobile tech has the potential to address broader gender inequalities. For example, the report notes that "In all countries, at least 64 percent of working women say they have (or would have) greater access to business and employment opportunities because of mobile."

So why are women falling behind? The main barrier is pretty obvious: cost. The men and women surveyed in most of the countries said that the cost of a phone handset was the biggest barrier for adoption among women, with the cost of phone credit also up there. In all countries, this was reported as a much bigger barrier than lacking technical literacy.

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Why is that a gendered issue? Quite simply, women don't tend to have as much income or financial autonomy in these countries. Across all countries, men were more likely to pay for their phone credit themselves, and the authors point out that even when women earn an income, they may not be able to make decisions about how it is spent.

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Another barrier is network availability, which sounds purely technological but also has a social angle: Women in some rural areas may have less opportunity to go to urban areas where they can get coverage, owing to social norms in some of the countries that mean they're more likely to stay at home.

"In many settings, particularly conservative ones, women typically spend more time than men at home looking after the household, children, and the elderly, and indoor signals can be weaker," the report explains. "Women in rural areas can also be less likely than their male counterparts to travel to more urban areas for work or other reasons, where network coverage is usually better." Owing to cost, women often have more basic handsets and less choice of SIMs, which may also be a limiting factor here.

The third most important barrier identified is particularly interesting, especially given the previously acknowledged potential of mobile tech to help women feel safer: Many survey respondents suggested that concerns over security and harassment were an issue. This was true for men too, although it was much greater for women in several countries. The main worries were the risk of becoming a target for theft, or being harassed by strangers.

The GSMA suggests a few recommendations to mobile operators that could help them reach more women (which will, after all, grow their market), such as offering cheaper handsets and developing safety features.

But what's clear is that access to technology is intrinsically wrapped up with greater social issues, from income inequality to gendered harassment. Mobile tech—and tech in general—finds itself in the awkward situation of holding great potential to help address these issues, while also being held back by them.