A new study, released at MWC19 by the GSMA, finds ongoing disparity among men and women in ownership of mobile devices and access to mobile internet in low- and middle-income countries. Closing the mobile gender gap could inject an additional $700 billion in GDP growth into these countries over a five-year period.

Access to technology is a key benchmark for development, contributing to all 17 of the United Nations Goals for Sustainable Development (UN SDGs). Despite recent improvements, however, women are still 10 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone and 23 percent less likely to use mobile internet. That means 313 million fewer women use mobile internet services – typically in areas of the world where the primary means to access the internet is with a mobile device. As digitalization advances across societies and economies, women are being disportionately left out of access to life-enhancing information, services, and opportunities.

These findings are part of a study recently released by the GSMA Connected Women Programme, an initiative within the GSMA, the global trade body that represents the interests of the mobile industry. The mission of the initiative is to advance the digital and financial inclusion of women in mobile internet and mobile money services by working with industry players to address barriers and unlock market opportunity.

Researchers based their findings on 20,000 face-to-face interviews with people in 18 low- and middle-income countries across Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The study was supported by Ipsos, which contributed to the fieldwork, and funded by UK Aid Direct, an aid organization of the UK government, and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). GSMA Intelligence, the research arm of the GSMA, also contributed to the study.

Among the positive findings of the study are signs that the mobile gender gap is gradually narrowing, when compared to a similar study conducted in 2014. For example, 80 percent of women now own a mobile phone, which represents an increase of 250 million women since 2014.

The greatest disparity however still exists in South Asia, where women are 28 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone and 57 percent less likely to use mobile internet. The study found that the gender gap was greatest in areas with the lowest overall mobile penetration.

Women interviewed for the study said their reasons for not owning a mobile device included affordability, literacy and digital skills, safety and security concerns, and relevance. The study noted that even among people who own mobile devices, women tend to use fewer mobile services and spend 17 percent less on these services in comparison to men. Possible reasons may include lack of relevant content or content in native language.

A UN expert on women’s matters, who was on hand as the study was presented at MWC19, remarked that in her experience, women who are first-time users of mobile internet search mostly for content related to health, children, and money matters. She advocated for making financial inclusion as easy as possible through the usage and ownership of mobile devices.

Benefits of Closing Mobile Gender Gap

Mobile technology has come to be a critical enabler of economic growth, making digital inclusion across under-served population segments a necessity for broad-scale development. According to the study, the commercial opportunity from equalizing mobile ownership and usage among men and women in low- and middle-income countries by 2023 is estimated at $140 billion, while the economic opportunity is estimated at $700 billion.

The report highlights the significant socioeconomic impact that closing the mobile gender gap is likely to have on the lives of women, their families, and communities when women have greater access to information and services to support themselves. Citing a Gallup analysis, the reports’ authors point to an association between mobile phone ownership with internet access and an improvement in people’s lives. Most obviously, as women contribute increasingly to the labor force, their productivity improves when they are given equal resources, noted in a report from the International Monetary Fund. In addition, providing women with greater access to information and services for managing household finances directly benefits children.

Recommendations for Key Stakeholders

The Mobile Gender Gap Report concludes with a call for multi-faceted, coordinated action among key stakeholders to increase mobile adoption among women. If progress is to be made in the struggle against inequality, then access to technology must be seen as a basic necessity, lest people risk being left even further behind as the technology advances. This requires a partnership among government, industry, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The report lists specific actions that can be taken by mobile network operators, internet companies, policymakers and regulators, and the development community.

Overall recommendations include: better tracking of gender-disaggregated data; ensuring the considerations of women in strategy planning, including setting gender-equity targets; better understanding of women’s needs and barriers in the design and implementation of policies, products, and services; and consulting and involving women users in product, service and policy design, including testing and marketing.

Learning for Life from SAP

The GSMA Mobile Gender Gap Report 2019 found that among both men and women, the top barrier preventing mobile internet use was a lack of literacy and digital skills.

Find out how SAP is contributing to tackling the digital skills gap through Learning for Life, a global initiative that signals SAP’s commitment to building an inclusive, skilled workforce. With a portfolio of more than 30 digital literacy programs, like Africa Code Week and SAP Next Gen, Learning for Life opens opportunities and changes people’s lives by ensuring everyone – regardless of age or background – has the relevant skills to thrive, innovate, and secure meaningful work in a digital world.