Mobilizing Women

Mobile phone ownership has skyrocketed around the globe. But a woman is still 21% less likely to own a mobile phone than a man. The figure is even higher if she lives in Africa, the Middle East, or South Asia.

Closing the gender gap on mobile phones would bring improved access to education and health as well as business and employment opportunities to hundreds of millions of women, improving not just their lives but those of their families, according to a report co-authored by the Cherie Blair Foundation, one of the first organizations to recognize the transformative potential of getting more mobile phones into the hands of women.

There is a strong economic incentive to bringing about that change. “Mobile operators aiming to be market leaders in five years time must excel at bringing on new female subscribers,” says the report, which was co-authored by mobile phone industry lobby the GSMA, the organizer of the Mobile World Congress taking place in Barcelona February 25-28.

The report, released in 2010, galvanized other non-profits, the mobile phone industry, and governments by putting a number on what many had already identified as both a problem and an opportunity.

Closing the mobile gender gap by adding 300 million women subscribers will add $13 billion to average revenue per user for mobile operators, says the report, which took data from other sources but also included its own field research. It projected that the incremental revenue opportunity for operators ranges from $740 million in Latin America to $4 billion in East Asia. The greatest incremental gains for women can be made in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa, the three regions where the gender gap is the biggest. The long-term opportunity is potentially bigger. Over the next five years, two out of every three potential new subscribers will be women, says the report. By connecting all of these women, mobile operators have the potential to add 600 million subscribers and boost their collective annual revenues by $29 billion.

A key to unlocking the potential will be the introduction of new mobile phone applications, which have already turned handheld devices into tools used in everything from health care to education. “Mobile applications bridge the gaps in supplying information where traditional infrastructure is lacking,” says mobile industry veteran Laureen Cook, Principal TMT Advisor for Global Telecoms, Media, & Technology at the International Finance Corporation, a part of the World Bank Group. “Women can now gain access to information, products and services, which is often life saving in the developing world,” says Cook, a scheduled speaker at this year’s Mobile World Congress. Applications centered on e-health, e-education and e-commerce allow women to become educated and to make informed decisions for themselves and their families.”

The GSMA mWomen Program – a partnership founded in 2010 by the GSMA, the Australian Agency for International Development, the United States Agency for International Development, and Visa – has set the goal of bringing mobile connectivity and services to 150 million women in emerging markets by 2014, thus reducing the mobile gender gap by half.

To achieve that goal, mWomen has offered a list of recommendations. These include: reducing the cost of mobile ownership by abolishing “discriminatory” taxes; removing cultural barriers that stigmatize female use of mobile phones in some cultures (in part by using well-respected people as champions for female ownership of mobile phones); collaborating with local organizations to increase technical literacy of the poorest women; and encouraging the deployment of value-added mobile services that benefit women in particular.

Handset providers, operators, and app developers around the world are rushing to serve this vastly underserved market with special devices, innovative calling plans and apps to support education, health, entrepreneurship and micro finance.

Both big and small companies have a role to play in expanding access for women by producing relevant content and services, says Ann Mei Chang, Senior Advisor for Women and Technology in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State.

“Small companies in particular, which are close on the ground, can be extremely effective at building locally-relevant content and services as they can better tailor to the local environment,” says Chang, who is also scheduled to speak at this year’s Mobile World Congress. “On the other hand, big companies have the reach and resources to make broader impacts. Facebook, for example, is one of the biggest drivers for adoption of the Internet in developing countries.”

While the GSMA/Cherie Blair Foundation report brought attention to the mobile gender gap, the so-called digital divide has long garnered notice and a flurry of activities aim to bring digital technology and access to the Internet to underserved parts of the world. Many of the lessons learned in dealing with digital technology can be transferred to the mobile sector, industry insiders say.

Information and communications technology (ICT) can lower transaction costs, something that will benefit women particularly because of their more severe time and mobility constraints, according to a World Bank report that laid out a strategy through 2015. Countries should use ICT to address the gender gap in health, education and other sectors, the report said.

In addition to mWomen, Chang cites other initiatives that are helping to bridge the gap by bringing useful services to women in developing countries; these include Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA), which delivers vital health information to pregnant women, and Safaricom’s M-PESA, which though not specifically targeted at women, has helped many women access financial services for the first time.

For the past five years Qualcomm, Grameen Foundation and Ruma, an Indonesian company, have partnered to create AppLab, which helps poor Indonesian entrepreneurs, about 85% of whom are women, provide mobile phone-based services such as airtime and a job-finding service.

By 2015 there will be 788 million people who access the Internet only through mobile phones, according to a white paper commissioned by Cisco. But industry experts say the full benefits of mobile technology are likely to be realized in conjunction with fixed-line technologies. While mobile coverage is more likely to reach remote areas and is cheaper to use, computers can offer more advanced services.

A study funded by Intel and released in January found that women who access the Internet using more than one platform report more benefits than those who use only computers or mobile phones. Women who access the Internet using both computers and cell phones are more likely to say that online access brought them benefits such as additional income and applying for jobs, according to the study, which included field interviews in Mexico, Uganda, India and Egypt.

“Putting women and technology together has the potential to be one of the highest-leverage opportunities to address the world’s development challenges,” Chang wrote in a blog post published in January. “Along with access to markets, finance, and education, increasing access to ICT by removing gender-related barriers is necessary to fully realize the potential economic contribution of women, and by extension entire communities.”

Mobile lies at the center of that equation, something governments, the private sector, and non-profits are embracing as both a challenge and an opportunity.