A framework for mobile operators to close the gender gap

What should mobile operators do to close the mobile gender gap? We have developed a framework to help operators take action on this important issue. This is based on our experience working with operators and researching women across Africa and Asia over a number of years.

Although operators cannot completely solve the issues preventing women owning and using mobile phones on their own – such as cost, digital literacy and underlying social norms – there is still a lot they can do, and this is the focus of our framework. Indeed, many potential operator actions involve encouraging or collaborating with other stakeholders such as other industry, governments and the development community.

Understand the gap

The first step of the framework is for operators to understand where the gender gap is in their customer base, and why. For instance, is the gender gap in rural or urban areas? Is it wider at a certain stage of the ‘customer journey’ to adopting and using a product? If we consider mobile internet, for example: is the largest gender gap at the stage where customers decide whether or not to purchase data for the first time, or is the largest gender gap only at a later stage among customers who use high volumes of data?

Many questions relating to where the gender gap is can be answered by operators analysing their internal data. Supplementary field research is also helpful, particularly for understanding why there is a gender gap.

Set targets

Once operators have established where the gap is, and why, we recommend that they set targets and KPIs to close the gender gap. An example of a target would be one of the ‘Connected Women Commitments’ made by our 33 mobile operators Commitment Partners to increase the proportion of women in their mobile internet and/or mobile money customer base from x% to y% by 2020.

Reaching women customers successfully involves multiple departments across the organisation. Ideally, targets and KPIs would be set at the C-suite level, and be cascaded down through the different teams. For simplicity’s sake, our framework shows the organisation in two parts: firstly, the teams focused on “Product and service design”, which involves everything appertaining to the design of mobile products and services, such as deciding which ones to launch, updating products and product features over time, and developing a pricing strategy. Secondly, the teams focused on the “Marketing and distribution” of these products and services, involving activities such as developing appropriate messaging, deciding which ATL (above-the-line) and BTL (below-the-line) channels to use, and managing the agent network.

It’s important to note that reaching women does not necessarily involve launching an entirely new product, service, marketing campaign or distribution approach. Often it is just about operators tweaking what already exists to ensure that they reach women as well as men. For instance, making sure that the location and opening hours of the agent network suits women’s daily routines as well as men’s.

Focus on the five themes

Our experience across multiple markets in Africa and Asia has revealed five common ‘themes’ that we believe operators and other stakeholders need to focus on in order to address the most common barriers preventing women from owning and using mobile phones:

  • Accessibility: stakeholders need to address the fact that women are less likely than men to have access to quality network coverage, handsets, electricity, agents and identification documents
  • Affordability: the cost of handsets, tariffs, data plans and transaction fees need to be affordable for women as well as men
  • Usability and skills: stakeholders need to improve the usability of handsets and services, and the ability and confidence of women to use them
  • Safety: stakeholders need to ensure that women feel safe when using a mobile phone
  • Relevant: government policies, and mobile products and services need to meet women’s needs as well as men’s

To close the gender gap, operators need to ensure that their “Products and services” and “Marketing and distribution” approaches consider women’s needs for these five themes. For example, operators should think about the “Accessibility” theme when designing “Products and services”. Women, for instance, are less likely to have an internet-enabled handset than men, so operators could ensure that they design their mobile money service so that it is easy to use on more basic handsets as well as smartphones. Another example would be that operators need to think about “Usability and skills” in their “Marketing and distribution” activities. Operators could consider partnering with other organisations who already have experience training women, such as microfinance institutions to train women on financial literacy and mobile money.

When mobile operators take action to “Understand the gap” (the first part of the framework), they should discover why women in their specific market are not owning and using mobile phones, and be able to prioritise which themes they need to address most urgently.

Ensure both social and commercial impact

Operators should remember that any product, service, marketing or distribution approach to reach women not only has to take into account women’s needs for the five themes, and have a positive impact on their lives, but also result in a profit for the operator, or at least have the potential to generate a profit for the operator in the near future.
Operator initiatives need to be both socially impactful and commercially sustainable to succeed over the long term. If an initiative has only one of these two crucial elements, it will eventually fail. So it is important for operators to ensure they understand the direct and indirect revenue streams associated with the initiative, the real cost of providing it, and whether or not it is making a difference to women’s lives.

Don’t forget the men

Taking the above steps will not just help mobile operators reach more women, but also more men. There are plenty of men out there who do not know how to use a mobile or do not understand how it is relevant to their lives. Focusing on this framework approach will also help operators reach more male customers, enabling them to achieve scale, and ultimately stability in their operations.

This initiative is currently funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), and supported by the GSMA and its members.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also supports the GSMA Connected Women programme, funding research to better understand where along the mobile money customer journey women tend to drop off more than men and identify opportunities for addressing key gender gaps in specific markets in Africa.