Designing mobile experiences aimed at closing the gender gap

This post was guest-authored by Smita Aggarwal, she is an Investments Director at the Impact Investing firm Omidyar Network where she supports innovative solutions that promote financial health and inclusion in India. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the GSMA.

Riding on top of the so-called JAM trinity—Jan Dhan accounts, the Aadhaar ID system, and mobile technology—India has made rapid strides towards improved financial inclusion. However, nearly 60 percent of women in the country still are not active users of the formal financial system.

Moreover, while there are over a billion mobile subscribers in India, the mobile ownership gender gap is 23%, meaning there are 142 million women who do not own a mobile phone (compared to 69 million men). The gender gap in mobile internet use is even greater at 68%, meaning there are 374 million women who do not use mobile internet (compared to 317 million men). It is important to understand the barriers for women because, in many emerging markets, the challenge is no longer about access, but acceptance and usage.

Data from Indus OS based on approximately 300,000 individual users, reveals that Indians spend an average of 200 minutes a day on mobile internet. Some 78 percent of this time is spent on social media, primarily Facebook, engaging with family members, entertainment, and gaming. In contrast, reading news articles accounts for just 2 percent of internet time and e-commerce a mere 1 percent. These numbers reinforce findings from our “Currency of Trust” report: Indian consumers associate smartphones primarily with entertainment and social media.

This perception drives a significant gender divide in handset ownership and data usage based on cultural norms. Many men refuse to provide their wives, daughters, or sisters with a smartphone—or in some cases any type of phone—due to societal fears that these devices will expose them to sexual harassment or lead to broken marriages. Many women have internalised these norms and are self-restrictive in their desire to own a phone and use the internet. Women who have smartphones are usually “dark users” and don’t have access to the internet.

Mobile for empowerment

The mobile phone can indeed be a tool for empowerment and not merely an entertainment device. The industry, however, has only recently begun to design products and mobile experiences that are compelling, safe, and useful to women. In 2016, a pair of entrepreneurs launched a parenting app for new mothers called Healofy. The person-to-person platform enables new and expecting parents to exchange concerns and advice and consult with doctors.

Today, they have more than 120,000 women subscribers with more than 50 percent residing in semi-urban or rural India. In Mahbubnagar, Telangana, one of the most conservative districts in India, a study by CDFI revealed that staff at Anganwadi centres, which provide a variety of mother and childcare services, spent a great deal of their time keeping records and filling forms. Since then, they started using a mobile app that records time-stamped attendance of children to the centre, tracks the nutrition of pregnant and lactating mothers, and delivers charts with the growth of each child in neat graphs, reducing time spent on bureaucracy.

In Gujarat, Shri Mahila Sewa Sahakari Bank, a cooperative bank run by women for women, has piloted a program to give its agents—or “bank saathis”—a microloan to buy a smartphone for enrolling new customers. Each agent uses a local language app developed by Kaleidofin to enrol new customers in a savings plan and track their funding performance.

Furthermore, financial responsibilities differ between men and women, as revealed in the Financial Diaries research “A Buck Short”. Women manage day-to-day operations of the household and are tasked with “stretching” small budgets to cover basic necessities and emergencies in order to protect the family from unexpected fluctuations. Specifically, in India, the research shows particular emphasis on children’s education and family health as women’s priorities, whereas men prefer to invest in a business and building assets.

Seizing the opportunity

There are many opportunities for new digital tools to simplify government benefits, household finances, and management of women’s small business by leveraging mobile apps and the India Stack. For example, in December 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the PMMVY conditional maternity benefit scheme, which offers expecting and nursing mothers up to 5,000 rupees for participating in certain health checkups and immunisations. An online portal has enabled the seamless rollout of this scheme across 548 districts where more than $20 million in benefits have been deposited directly into recipients’ Aadhaar-linked bank accounts. Accessing these benefits could provide a compelling use case for low-income women in remote villages to become active users of digital financial tools.

Getting women to be comfortable using mobile and transacting on the internet is key to building successful businesses around the next half billion underserved Indians. It is important that handset manufacturers, mobile network operators, and other service providers amplify the various use cases of a mobile phone in improving the daily lives of women. Equally so, the digital apps should explicitly protect privacy—including default settings and easy options to decide who to share content with—so that women are not targeted through digital mediums. As the examples above show, when mobile apps meet the needs of women and are well-designed to integrate with their existing social networks and financial lives, they increase the value of the mobile phone and unlock the potential for women’s mobile phone ownership and adoption of digital financial tools to rise simultaneously, in a self-reinforcing cycle. We are certain that women’s digital inclusion will have a positive ripple effect on the well-being and productivity of the entire household.


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