While my last trip to Pakistan was over 12 years ago, I recall being impressed with the number of people using mobile phones. In those days, feature phones operating on second-generation (2G) cellular networks were the devices used by cellular customers. I should qualify "customers" as it was men as the sole owner of these mobile devices. I remember sitting in a crowded café in Karachi where I observed many men talking on their phone, but not a single woman. While the mobile phone was transforming the way men communicate, which would bring certain improvements, I imagined the socioeconomic benefits women could experience if they had better access to mobile technology.
A lot has changed since my last trip to Pakistan. Smartphones accessing the mobile internet is just one key evolution of the mobile telecom industry over the past decade. Therefore, it was with great interest that I read Addressing the Mobile Gender Gap in Pakistan, a report produced by the GSM Association (GSMA), a UK-based organization representing the interests of mobile operators worldwide. With financial support from UK aid from the UK government and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida, the report notes that "2020 was an unparalleled year in which the importance of universal connectivity and access to critical information, services and opportunities came into sharp focus. Across low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), mobile is the primary way most people access the internet, accounting for 85 percent of total broadband connections." The report importantly explains that "[d]espite the importance of mobile, the benefits are not shared equally."
Moreover, the "report examines how women's mobile access and use are changing in Pakistan. It highlights examples of what stakeholders are doing to tackle the mobile gender gap and provides recommendations to further improve digital inclusion for women. Drawing on the findings of the annual GSMA Intelligence Consumer Survey in Pakistan from 2017 to 2019, the report is supplemented by interviews with key stakeholders in Pakistan, as well as other GSMA and third-party data."
Below are the report's key findings:
- There has been progress in closing the mobile gender gap in Pakistan. Between 2017 and 2019, gender gaps in mobile ownership, smartphone ownership and mobile internet awareness and use decreased by between five to 17 percentage points.
- Growth in mobile internet awareness and use was particularly impressive during this period.
- Of the 12 countries consecutively included in the GSMA Intelligence Consumer Survey from 2017 to 2019, Pakistan had one of the strongest rates of growth in mobile internet awareness, especially among women. The gender gap in mobile internet awareness narrowed from 16 percent to 11 percent. In parallel, women’s mobile internet use nearly doubled from 10 percent to 19 percent.
- Despite this progress, mobile phone ownership in Pakistan is still unequal. Only 50 percent of women own a mobile phone compared with 81 percent of men. This is equivalent to 22 million fewer women than men owning a mobile phone.
- Women in Pakistan are 49 percent less likely to use mobile internet than men, which translates into 12 million fewer women than men using mobile internet.
- The main reason women cited for not owning a mobile phone or using mobile internet was family disapproval. For an estimated 11 million women in Pakistan, family disapproval is the key barrier to owning a mobile phone.
- Low literacy levels and unaffordable handsets and data are also key barriers to women owning mobile phones and using mobile internet.
- Smartphone ownership is relatively low in Pakistan for both men and women: 37 percent and 20 percent, respectively. The proportion who intended to purchase a smartphone in the next six months was also low: just six percent and four percent, respectively.
- Owning a smartphone can be a powerful way to close the gender gap in the use of mobile services, but there are still significant challenges.
- Sixteen percent of women in Pakistan who own a smartphone are still not using mobile internet.
- Ninety percent of men who own a smartphone purchased it themselves compared with just 42 percent of women.
- Once women in Pakistan own a mobile phone, they are just as likely as men to report the benefits of mobile. Fifty-eight percent of female mobile owners reported that owning a mobile helps them with day-to-day work, study or chores while 66 percent reported that owning a mobile makes them feel safer and 53 percent reported that owning a mobile gives them access to useful information they would not otherwise be able to access easily.
- Closing the gender gap in mobile access and use in Pakistan could generate a 54 percent revenue increase for the mobile industry, equivalent to approximately $130 million. This is much higher than the 31 percent average increase across all Asian countries, and represents a significant commercial opportunity for the mobile industry in Pakistan.
"Stakeholders in Pakistan should focus primarily on bridging the country's wide gender gap in mobile ownership and reaching the remaining unconnected women, and secondarily on the usage gap," the report explains. "This will require addressing three main barriers: literacy and digital skills, affordability and the strong influence of social norms on women’s ability to access and use mobile technology." As such, the report presents the following recommendations:
- The government, mobile industry and development community should work together to address public perceptions of women using mobile technology. In particular, normalizing women's use of mobile and raising awareness of how owning and using a mobile phone can benefit women and their families. This could include promoting use cases with both personal appeal and externally justifiable benefits, such as providing education for children, supporting family healthcare and unlocking opportunities to generate income for the family.
- Male gatekeepers should be considered when targeting marketing or digital skills training programs to women as they often influence women's mobile access, mobility and purchasing decisions.
- The government and other stakeholders should invest further in public education, especially basic literacy and other initiatives that help women and girls build their mobile digital skills, financial literacy and confidence. This should include women and girls at all levels of education, income and familiarity with mobile and the internet.
- Designers of mobile services should include local languages where possible, and consider increasing the use of icons, pictures, numeric inputs and IVR/voice commands to better serve women with low levels of literacy. Involving women in the design and piloting of these services would also help ensure their needs are met.
- The mobile industry and policymakers should explore further initiatives to overcome the affordability barrier. This could include introducing more competitively priced and subsidized internet-enabled handsets and handset financing models, and lowering taxes on handsets and mobile services that have a tangible socioeconomic benefit. Taking these steps would likely benefit women disproportionately. For those still unable to afford a handset, the industry could explore solutions to improve the experience of customers who share a device.
- To accelerate the closure of the mobile gender gap over the long term, stakeholders should ensure there is a focus on gender equality and reaching women at an organizational and policy level, through senior leaders championing this issue and setting specific gender equity targets.
"Mobile technology has the potential to help address many of the wider gender inequalities in Pakistan by enabling women to access health, financial and other life-enhancing services, and contribute to a number of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)," the report says. "Pakistan has been a key driver of the narrowing gender gap in South Asia in recent years, recording impressive growth in women’s adoption and use of mobile technology."
I concur that "[s]takeholders in Pakistan have an opportunity to build on positive momentum in the country and accelerate digital inclusion for women. This has become even more critical in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has increased the urgency of reaching women in Pakistan with mobile technology." I appreciate how this report addresses the mobile gender gap in a country with a population of 217 million as of 2019, according to the World Bank, 49 percent of whom are women. Imagine the socioeconomic benefits for all Pakistanis, men and women alike, if the mobile gender gap is eliminated.
Do you agree with the report's recommendations? Do you have additional ones that will facilitate the elimination of the mobile gender gap?
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.