Today, 80% of women across low- and middle-income countries own a mobile phone, according to the latest findings the GSMA.
That is an incredible figure. For a technology which had barely gained a foothold in many developing countries 20 years ago to have reached this level of ubiquity is unprecedented. So it's no surprise that lots of people are excited about the potential development opportunities that mobile can provide. As Bill and Melinda Gates highlighted in their 2019 annual letter, in the hands of the poorest women, a mobile phone can be an incredibly powerful tool. So with so many women now owning a mobile phone, even in low-income countries, why do we still talk about a mobile gender gap?
Although huge numbers are now connected, those 20% of women who remain unconnected still translate to over 400 hundred million women not being digitally included. And in many ways these are the women who stand to benefit the most from what mobile connectivity provides. They are often the women who most need social and economic empowerment through digital and financial inclusion, as it is most often the poorest women in the lowest-income countries that are excluded from mobile ownership.
The high overall mobile ownership figures across low- and middle-income countries also mask much lower levels of ownership and use in some countries and regions. For example, in Mozambique, one of the poorest countries in the world, only 45% of women own a mobile phone.
Moreover, while 80% is tantalisingly close to universal ownership, the stubborn 10% gender gap between women and men is not closing over time. As mobile subscriber growth is slowing, these unconnected women are likely to remain unconnected without deliberate and concerted action to widen mobile access and ownership.
Another consideration is that mobile ownership is just one aspect of digital inclusion. While access to voice and SMS alone can be of huge value to women in low- and middle-income countries, mobile is most powerful as a platform to enable deeper digital and financial inclusion – in particular, access to the internet. A key part of why the mobile gender gap remains a critical consideration is that for women in low- and middle-income countries, mobile is the primary means of accessing the internet. An average of 61% of female internet users across the low- and middle-income countries that the GSMA researched access the internet exclusively on a mobile phone.
But mobile internet use is still far from universal, or equal. 48% of women in low- and middle-income countries now use mobile internet, which demonstrates a remarkable growth in uptake, but it still means that across these markets women are 23% less likely than men to use mobile internet. This means that all the advantages that internet access can provide are currently disproportionately benefiting men, which perpetuates women’s disadvantaged position in many countries worldwide.
Indeed, many women are still a long way from being able to use mobile internet, and a distinct set of barriers prevent mobile internet use for both men and women. For one thing, although we assume might assume that the internet is now an universally understood concept, the reality is that many of the digitally excluded are not even aware of the opportunities that connectivity can bring. Levels of awareness of mobile internet were found to be significantly lower for women in almost every country researched by the GSMA.
Among those who are aware of mobile internet, literacy and digital skills emerge as the key barrier, with difficulties reading and writing presenting a substantial barrier for many of those still not online. Affordability emerged as the second most important barrier, particularly of internet-enabled handsets, while the relevance of the internet and concerns over safety and security also present key barriers. These barriers are often felt more acutely by women due to the social norms and demographic barriers they face, such as lower average levels of literacy, education or employment.
The mobile industry has recognised the importance of addressing the mobile gender gap, and is leading an effort to drive digital and financial inclusion for women in low- and middle-income countries. As part of the GSMA Connected Women Programme’s Commitment Initiative, nearly 37 mobile operators from 27 countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America have committed to reducing the gender gap in their mobile money or mobile internet customer base by 2020. These operators have provided over 16 million additional women with access to digital and financial services since 2016.
But more still needs to be done if the opportunity that mobile presents for women is to be fully realised. Unless stakeholders continue to their efforts to close the mobile gender gap, it threatens to further exclude women from participating in increasingly digitised societies and economies. Poor women are those who have the most to gain from mobile connectivity, but they are also the ones who are the furthest away from being able to access it. And that's why we still need to talk about the mobile gender gap.
Claire Sibthorpe is the Head of Connected Women Programme at the GSMA