Women are left out of the digital revolution in low- and middle-income countries

Mobile technology and access to the internet transformed the world in the last twenty years. In the news, there is a nearly universally accepted assumption that mobile phones are ubiquitous, with the often stated statistic that there are more mobile phones than toothbrushes in the world today. This universal access to technology can be “game-changing” in improving the lives for people around the world – whether receiving previously inaccessible health information, accessing bank accounts, or increasing educational and employment opportunities. Mobile phone and internet access is also associated with increased economic productivity and growth. McKinsey and Company estimates that increased internet access could add 10% or $300 billion to Africa’s GDP by 2025.

The revolutionary power of technology is undeniable, but unfortunately, statistics on global access to these mobile technologies is misleading. In fact, they are based on the number of SIM cards, or connections, in the world, not the actual number of individuals who own a mobile phone. In the developing world, it is very common for individuals to own multiple SIM cards—so, in reality less than 50% of the global population owns a mobile phone and less than 40% have access to the internet. These figures are shockingly low when compared with the hype around the ubiquity of mobile phones. Another little known important fact is that most of the unconnected population are women. In low- and middle-income countries alone, there are 1.7 billion females who do not own a mobile phone today.

The gender gap in mobile phone ownership varies across regions and countries
Our GSMA Connected Women program recently released a new report Bridging the gender gap: Mobile access and usage in low- and middle –income countries. This report shows that women in low- and middle- income countries are 14% less likely to own a mobile phone than men – which translates into over 200 million fewer women than men owning phones. However, this issue is more acute in certain regions and countries. For example, in South Asia, women are 38% less likely to own a phone than men. And, even in regions where the gender gap in mobile phone ownership is close to the average, like in Sub-Saharan Africa, certain countries in the region tell a different story. Women in Niger, for instance, are 45% less likely to own a mobile phone than their male counterparts. Similarly, vast disparities can exist within countries. For example, in Mexico, the gender gap in mobile phone ownership in urban areas is estimated at 2%, but rural women are 26% less likely to own a phone than rural men.

Figure 1: Gender gap in mobile phone ownership by region

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Even when women own mobile phones, they use them less intensively to access the internet than men
Access to mobile phones, and especially mobile internet can unlock a world of possibilities. But, women in developing countries are moving up the digital ladder at a slower rate than men. For example, in Kenya (see figure 2, below), there is little difference between men and women in using voice and SMS services, but a large gender gap in mobile internet use. This trend is evident in 9 out of 11 countries in our new GSMA study.

Figure 2: Gender gap in mobile phone usage in Kenya

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The gender gap in mobile internet usage is especially disconcerting because it means that women are being left out of the digital revolution and may be ill-equipped to use technology tools at a time when the world is increasingly internet-dependent.

Why do women access and use mobile phones and internet less than men?
Across the 11 countries studied by Connected Women, the top five barriers to mobile phone ownership and use by women are:

  • High cost of mobile handsets and credit
  • Poor network quality & coverage
  • Security concerns & harassment over mobile phones
  • Lack of trust in agents & operators
  • Low technical literacy & confidence

Although men also experience these barriers, women across all these countries tend to experience these barriers more acutely than men. For example, in regards to cost as a barrier, women are often more price sensitive since they tend to earn less and often have less control over household expenditures than men. For example, in India, 72% of male phone owners interviewed said they made the decision on which handset they purchased vs. only 19% of female phone owners. This highlights the social norms that can inhibit women from gaining access to technology. In fact, it can mean the difference between a women having access to an internet-enabled phone vs. a basic handset. And, in most countries studied, men had more sophisticated handsets than women.

Security and harassment on phones is also a greater concern for women than men in most countries in the study. In some countries, fear of harassment by strangers resulted in restricted access to mobile phones and internet for young women more than for young men – leaving these young women less equipped to use technology tools than their male counterparts.

There are substantial commercial and social benefits to closing the gender gap in mobile access and use
This new report estimates that closing the gender gap in mobile phone ownership and use could add an additional $170B USD to the mobile phone industry by 2020. Ensuring women own and use mobile phones has substantial social benefits for societies as mobile phones can help increase education and employment opportunities, and women tend to invest these benefits in their children. Mobile phones are also a large-scale, efficient tool for delivering public and private services such as mobile banking, emergency response, and government-to-person payments. Finally, there is a social imperative to ensure equal access to information and digital skills for both men and women.

What can be done to close the gender gap in mobile phone access and use?
There is a rare opportunity for policy-makers and the private sector to work hand-in-hand to address this issue. Key areas for collaboration include making mobile phones and services more affordable; increasing the availability of gender-disaggregated data in the use of ICTs; and addressing security and harassment concerns for women when using mobile phones. Although there is no silver bullet, this combination of interventions could help close the digital divide between men and women globally.


2. GSMA Intelligence data on unique subscribers.
3. Gender gap in mobile phone ownership (%) = [male phone owners (% of male population) – female phone owners (% of female population)]/ male phone owners (% of male population).

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