The Mobile Gender Gap in Africa is Costing Operator Revenues – Women own less phones and use them less says GSMA study

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The gender gap in Africa is part of a broader global gap in terms of both handset ownership and use. Unless operators get to grips with closing this gap, they could be losing significant revenue according to a study from the GSMA. Russell Southwood spoke to Claire Sibthorpe, GSMA Connected Women Programme Director about what the study shows.

Q. In broad terms, describe the global gender gap in terms of mobile ownership and use?

A.   The research showed that over 1.7 billion females in low- and middle-income countries do not own mobile phones and women on average are 14 percent less likely to own a mobile phone than men, creating a gender gap of 200 million fewer women than men owning mobile phones. In particular, women in South Asia are 38 percent less likely to own a phone than men, highlighting that the gender gap in mobile phone ownership is wider in certain parts of the world. Interestingly, even when women own mobile phones, there is a significant disparity in mobile phone usage, with women using phones less frequently than men, especially for more sophisticated services such as mobile internet. In most countries surveyed, fewer women than men who own phones report using messaging and data services beyond voice.

Q. How does Africa compare to other parts of the world?

A.   Although we estimate the gender gap in mobile phone ownership across Africa results in women, on average, being 13 percent less likely to own a mobile phone than men, there are wide differences between countries across the continent. For example, although Kenya is relative success story with Kenyan women only seven percent less likely to own a mobile phone than a Kenyan man, women, in the DRC women are 33 percent less likely to own a mobile phone than their male counterparts and, in Niger, women are 45 percent less likely to own a phone than their male counterparts (which is the widest gap between men and women found across the 11 countries surveyed). There are often wider gaps found in rural areas across the continent when compared with urban areas.

Q. The report says the gender gap is driven by "a complex set of socio-economic and cultural barriers." Unpick for me some of the elements that complexity.

A.  Yes it is complex in terms of culture and tradition and many other issues. We found that the top five barriers to women owning and using mobile phones from a customer perspective are cost; network quality and coverage; security and harassment via mobile; operator or agent trust; and technical literacy and confidence issues. Social norms and disparities between men and women in terms of education and income influence women’s access to and use of mobile technology and often contribute to women experiencing barriers to mobile phone ownership and use more acutely than men. This means that, for example, lowering the cost of mobile phones will disproportionately benefit women as they tend to be more price-sensitive than men. It also means that in many parts of the world, women experience more monitoring and restrictions over their use of mobile phones than in men.  For example, in Niger, a substantially greater number of both men and women agree that it is acceptable for a husband to check the numbers on his wife’s phone compared with those who feel it is acceptable for a woman to check the numbers on her husband’s mobile. These attitudes can discourage access and use of mobiles for women when compared with men.

Q. What barriers do you think affect African women getting and using mobile phones?

A.      With over a third of the Sub-Saharan population living on less than $2 per day, affordability is still a major concern, especially for women who oftentimes have less income than men.  Women also face more cultural barriers around the use of mobile than men. The Niger example I gave you is pertinent. 

Q. The report has a case study on Mpesa use in Kenya. What does this show?

A.   Kenya has a relatively small gender gap in mobile phone ownership, with women seven percent less likely to own a mobile phone than a man. This gap is relatively small compared with what we would expect for this country given the socio-demographics and economic development of the country.  In our interviews with experts across Kenya we heard that M-Pesa was a catalyst to women owning phones. An extremely relevant and valuable product, M-Pesa allows cheap and efficient money transfers, often from sons or husbands working away from home to their mothers or wives.

Women are frequent users of M-Pesa and in our research, half of the women in Kenya who owned or borrowed a mobile phone declared they had received money and topped-up credit through mobile money in the past seven days. This indicates that the cost savings of cutting out middlemen, transport costs and fees, as well as the safety and security of M-Pesa, are beneficial enough to justify the costs of mobile phone ownership.

Q. Fewer women use services other than voice. Give me some African examples and explain why.

A. In Kenya you see that there is little difference between men and women who claim to have never used voice or SMS services, however, a large gap emerges when you ask about mobile internet.  Overall, 57 percent of Kenyan women who own mobile phones have never tried mobile internet compared with 39 percent of Kenyan men.  We saw similar patterns in other African countries studied where fewer women than men have tried mobile internet.  Some of this difference can be explained by the fact that women often own less sophisticated handsets than men, but even when comparing women and men with similar functionalities on their handsets, we observed this usage gap in mobile interment.

Q. Nevertheless, women are enthusiastic about social media in greater numbers than men. Why is that?

A.  In most of the countries studied fewer women than men report using social media such as Facebook and Twitter. However, we found strong qualitative evidence during focus group discussions with hundreds of women around the world that they really enjoy social media tools, particularly group chat services. Although we did not explore all the reasons driving this trend, women report that they enjoy the social aspects of these interactions and keeping in touch with friends and family conveniently. It can also provide a much-needed break to household duties and busy schedules for women who are often balancing work and family obligations

Q. What strategies are there for closing the gender gap?

A. There are several recommendations laid out in the report for various stakeholders across the mobile ecosystem, and it is important to recognise that there is no one “silver bullet”. It is also important to recognise that the gender gap in ownership and use is unlikely to close naturally on its own. There is a need for targeted interventions by different stakeholders. For instance, women around the world told us that cost was the largest barrier that they faced. Industry players should continue to lower the costs of mobile products and services (e.g. bring lower cost handsets to customers, introduce more creative and transparent pricing, particularly for data charges). Policy makers need to ensure appropriate policy and regulation to lower cost and access barriers for customers (e.g. reduce mobile-specific taxes, allow active and voluntary infrastructure sharing, release sufficient spectrum at an affordable cost).

We also heard from women around the world that they are concerned about security and harassment over their mobiles, despite the fact that 68 percent or more in every country say it makes them feel safer overall. Increased awareness and services to combat security and harassment concerns of women should be introduced (e.g., call-block services). Increasing the technical and digital literacy of women should also be a priority. Governments and the NGO community, for instance, should continue to offer programs to build the technical and digital skills of women and girls by offering mobile and digital skills in primary school curricula and offering technical literacy training for women through targeted programs.

Ensuring that data on female mobile phone access and usage, and on ICT more broadly is collected and analysed on the individual company and national level will be essential in the long term to understand progress on the gender gap in mobile access and use, and in ICTs more broadly. This should be coupled with an investment in consumer insights research to better deliver services that meet the needs of women.

Finally, more work has to be done to address underlying gender disparities which influence women’s access to mobile (e.g., improved education and employment opportunities for women).

To watch Claire Sibthorpe covering similar but slightly different territory is a video clip interview, click on the link here:

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