GSMA: The world is getting mobile phones, but women are being left behind

Mobile phone operators have already turned their attention to the developing world, and cell phone penetration rates are rapidly increasingly as a result. However, that doesn’t mean phones are reaching everyone, in every market. Rather, there’s a gender gap emerging in low- and middle-income countries when it comes to mobile phone ownership.

Women are 14 percent less likely to own a mobile phone than men, according to a new report released today by the GSMA’s Connected Women’s program. However, that’s not the same across the globe. In South Asia, for example, a woman is 38 percent less likely to own a phone than men, although in other regions of the world the the gender gap narrows to single digits.

GSMA women report

Even within a region, though, the numbers can vary widely.

“Even though they’re 14% less likely on average [to own a mobile phone], you see there’s huge regional variances,” said Shireen Santosham, Senior Insights Manager for the Connected Women Program M4D. “In a region like Africa, Niger has a 45% gender gap. Democratic Republic of Congo has a 33%. Kenya has a seven percent, largely driven by m-Pesa. So we have to be careful about the law of averages.”

The Connected Women 2015 survey is a follow-up to the first report GSMA released five years ago on women and mobile phones. That report identified a 21 percent gender gap, but it only surveyed four countries, compared to the 11 in the 2015 update, Santosham said.

“We decided to do this new report because we knew women are underserved and, without data, we’re unsure how to fix it,” she said. “We can say on a high level that we’ve made progress.”

Cost and network quality/coverage remain the top two barriers to mobile phone adoption for women, but one thing that surprised researchers was the issue of security and harassment surrounding phones in low- and middle-income countries.

Cell phones did make at least 68 percent of the female respondents feel safe — but it can also be the number three barrier behind cost and network quality for women phone owners. Screen Shot 2015-03-01 at 11.02.15 PM Women were concerned that cell phones would make them theft targets or could subject them to harassment from strangers with no way to stop it.

“I think we need to address this issue, and there are tactical things companies can do,” Santosham said “Because of the fear around harassment, young girls are not getting access.”

There’s a lot of small steps the industry can do from adding a free call blocking service to enabling remote top-ups, instead of having to visit a stall or an operator, that could increase a woman’s feeling of security.

But, it all comes back to the problem of affordability. Women across the globe tend to earn less money, and often aren’t involved or are not the ones purchasing the phones.

In India, 72 percent of males said they made the decisions to purchase their own phones, compared to 19 percent of women.

“Because women globally have less financial control often times than men, anything we do around affordability will affect woman more disproportionately than men,” Santosham said. “When we look at the differences for mobile phone ownership for men and women, it’s a complex problem between economic and cultural issues… This has to do with both poverty and issues around social norms and how women interact. When we think about tackling this problem, there’s no silver bullet. It has to do with issues around affordability.

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