Women and mobile in India: Realising the opportunity

1. The Opportunity

Research by GSMA in 2015 estimated that women in India are 36 per cent less likely than men to own a mobile phone which means that there is an estimated 114 million fewer women than men owning a mobile phone. Even when women do own a phone, they are far less likely than men to use it. For instance, among the mobile users surveyed in our study women were on average 51 per cent less likely than men to have sent an SMS in the last 30 days. Only 12 per cent female mobile owners surveyed had used mobile internet in the last 30 days versus around 25 per cent of male owners.

Figure: 1: Gap between men and women sending an SMS exists across user segments


Closing the gender gap in mobile ownership and usage in India, represents a significant revenue opportunity for mobile operators.

Figure 2: Revenue Opportunity in India (Cumulative 2015-2020) in $ billions


2. Know Your Customer

As a first step it is important to understand and monitor the uptake and use of a mobile service by gender, in order to understand the size of the opportunity. Segmenting customers, including by gender, enables providers to more easily understand market dynamics and behavioral patterns. For instance, the gender gap in mobile phone ownership varies by segment – it is significantly higher in rural areas, amongst those who have no formal education and among people in the 15-24 age group.

Figure 3: Difference between male and female ownership varies by segment:


Consumer insights research is also fundamental to understand the female (and male) mobile customer in a specific market. Researching specific female segments (and male segments) helps in understanding their lifestyle, behavior and attitudes, the challenges that they face and therefore how to best meet their needs.

3. Involve men when targeting women customers

Men should be involved when targeting marketing or technical literacy training programmes to women, because they often influence women’s mobile-related access and purchasing decisions. For instance, our ‘Bridging the Gender Gap’ study found that women have less financial autonomy and low decision- making power in making mobile phone purchases. Among those surveyed, women were 74 per cent less likely to have made their own decision in purchasing a handset and were also less likely to purchase mobile credit on their own. Of the female handset owners surveyed who used their own money or the household budget to pay for their handset, 61 per cent had to ask for permission to spend this money on a handset.

Figure 4: Women have low levels of financial autonomy and decision


This highlights how social norms around how women and men make financial decisions in a household, the ‘appropriateness’ of men and women interacting with sales agents of the opposite sex, and community perceptions of both male and female roles, all influence mobile phone ownership and use.

4. Handsets and Credit Costs are a Key Barriers to Mobile Ownership

In India, both men and women have identified handset costs and credit costs as barriers to owning or using a mobile phone. The fact that handset cost is also greater barrier for women than men, may also contribute in part to women having less expensive and more basic mobile phones than men.

Figure 5: Handset cost is the most commonly cited barrier


According to GSMA Intelligence, since 2015 smartphone adoption growth rate has averaged at approximately 20 per cent per quarter. The market continues to witness the emergence of lower priced smartphones. However, 50 per cent of the women interviewed identified handset cost as a key barrier to owning a mobile phone. Key stakeholders in the Indian eco-system need to work towards providing improved handset financing, which will allow more women to take out micro-loans to purchase handsets. Women should also be considered as participants in the supply chain of low cost or second-hand handsets, creating income generation opportunities for low-income households.

5. A Significant Number of Women Borrow Mobile Phones Impacting their Use of Non-Voice Applications

Our study showed that 29 per cent of women borrow hand-sets in India as an alternative to owning them, the highest amongst 11 countries surveyed. Borrowing is more common among rural women and women with lower levels of education. This borrowing can either be access to a shared household phone or a phone from friends and/or neighbours. If a household shares a handset, the power dynamics within that household can influence access to and the use of that handset. For instance, a shared household phone can often be taken outside the home, leaving women without access during those periods.

Women who borrow phones use them less frequently than owners, predominantly use voice, and face more technical literacy challenges using mobile services. Women who borrow a phone are therefore less likely to have the opportunity to become familiar with all the different functionalities of a phone – leaving them less confident to use mobile phones for fear of making a mistake, losing money or ‘breaking’ the phone.

Figure 6: Borrowing impacts use of non-voice applications


6. Low Technical Literacy and Confidence Hamper Adoption and Use

Technical literacy and confidence is a greater barrier for Indian women than men, with 34 per cent of female respondents (vs 23 per cent of men) reporting that not knowing how to use a mobile properly is a barrier. Designers of mobile services should include local languages where possible (not only Hindi or English), and consider icons, cartoons, and IVR to better serve illiterate women. More needs to be done towards promoting digital literacy for rural Indian women. It is also important to include women when testing and trialling new products and services.

Please note that this blog draws on the findings from ‘Bridging the gender gap: Mobile access and usage in developing countries’, GSMA 2015.