March 17, 2020

Report Finds Mobile Phone Access and Use Remain Unequal Among Women and Men in Low- and Middle-Income Countries

According a GSMA study, "Growth in internet access has been remarkable in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), where 2.9 billion people now access the internet on their mobile phones. Across developing countries, mobile is the primary way most people access the internet, with mobile broadband connections comprising 87 percent of total broadband connections."

However, the report, which is produced as part of the GSMA's Connected Women Commitment Initiative, explains: Despite its importance, mobile access and use remain unequal across LMICs; women are still less likely than men to own a mobile phone, and less likely to use the internet on a mobile.

Below are the key findings of The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2020, which are based on the results of over 16,000 face-to-face surveys commissioned by GSMA Intelligence across 15 LMICs, and subsequent modeling and analysis of this survey data:

  • 54 percent of women in low- and middle-income countries now use mobile internet and the gender gap is narrowing. Women are 20 percent less likely to use mobile internet than men, down from 27 percent in 2017. This reduction was driven primarily by an improvement in South Asia where the gap narrowed by 16 percentage points.
  • Despite this progress, the gender gap in mobile internet use in low- and middle-income countries remains substantial, with over 300 million fewer women than men accessing the internet on a mobile. The gender gap is still widest in South Asia at 51 percent, and remains fairly consistent in other regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa, which has the second largest gender gap at 37 percent.
  • The underlying gender gap in mobile ownership remains largely unchanged, with the remaining unconnected proving difficult to reach. Women across low- and middle-income countries are eight percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone, which translates into 165 million fewer women than men owning a mobile.
  • The relative importance of the factors preventing access to mobile internet are changing rapidly across low- and middle-income countries. For both men and women, awareness of mobile internet is growing quickly, although it remains unequal, and women and men are increasingly seeing the internet as relevant to their lives.
  • Handset affordability remains the primary barrier to mobile phone ownership for men and women. Among mobile users who are aware of mobile internet, a lack of literacy and digital skills continues to be the main barrier to use, followed by affordability. Safety concerns are also a key barrier to mobile internet access, particularly in Latin America. Although relevance has declined in importance as a barrier, it remains a critical factor in several countries.
  • Smartphones drive substantially higher mobile internet use, but there is a significant gender gap in smartphone ownership, with women in low-and middle-income countries 20 percent less likely than men to own one. Women are much less likely than men to purchase their own smartphone, and have less autonomy and agency in smartphone acquisition. However, many women express a strong intention to acquire a smartphone.
  • Among mobile owners, women on average use a smaller range of services in all 15 countries surveyed — a gap that remains even among smartphone owners. Bringing women's mobile use in line with men's represents an important commercial opportunity for the mobile industry to drive ARPU growth and extend more of the benefits of mobile ownership to women.
  • Consumption of video content on mobile is growing remarkably quickly for both men and women, increasing by over 50 percent in two years in half of surveyed countries. This reflects the growing popularity of applications that facilitate sharing of user-generated video content in low- and middle-income countries, such as YouTube and TikTok.
  • Both men and women across surveyed markets report that mobile provides important benefits. In all 15 markets surveyed, the majority of male and female mobile owners state that mobile ownership makes them feel safer and provides access to important information that not only assists them in their daily lives, but that they would not have received otherwise. Benefits are considerably greater for those who use mobile internet, reinforcing the importance of equalizing internet access.

The report presents the following recommendations for all stakeholders to close the mobile gender gap:
  • Work to understand women's needs and barriers to mobile ownership and use in your market, and design targeted interventions to address these barriers. Consider the effect of social norms on women in the design and implementation of policies, products and services.
  • Improve the quality and availability of gender-disaggregated data to set targets, create strategies and track progress.
  • Ensure considerations of women and gender equality are integrated in strategies and plans, including setting specific gender-equity targets for reaching women and tracking their progress.
  • Consult and involve women users in product, service and policy design and implementation, including testing and piloting with women, and proactively tailoring marketing and distribution approaches to women.

The report importantly notes: "As mobile is the primary way most people in LMICs access the internet, closing the mobile gender gap is becoming increasingly urgent as the importance of the internet grows. Promising progress is being made, but continued, concerted action is critical."

What is more, "Mobile ownership makes women feel safer, more informed and supports them in their work, education and other tasks. These benefits are much more pronounced for mobile internet users."

Do you agree with the report's recommendations on how to close of the mobile gender gap? What recommendations would you add?

Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of GT Perspectives, an online forum focused on turning perspective into opportunity.

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