Gender divide in mobile; is there more to it?

Posted on February 27, 2011  /  0 Comments

Research Fellow Tahani Iqbal represented LIRNEasia at an mWomen (GSMA) working group meeting in India in late 2010. Several global telcos were also invited to help develop a “business case” for tapping the female market, and to identify what operators were already doing in this regard.

Tahani presented data from the Teleuse@BOP studies, which indicates that the “divide” in access at the bottom of the pyramid (BOP) in most countries studied is clearly narrowing, with men and women talking as much as each other on the phone. Though there are pockets where the access divide is severe  (e.g., rural Pakistan, seen in the Teleuse@BOP findings; also see Karin Siegmann’s work for example), overall in the other countries that the Teleuse@BOP2 and 3 surveys were conducted (India, Sri Lanka, Philippines and Thailand) the gender divide  at the BOP has either fallen (India and Sri Lanka) between 2006 and 2008, or doesn’t even exist (Philippines and Thailand).

The “gender divide” is an issue which receives much media attention, and is the focus of much advocacy and many ICT4D projects.   Little attention is given to some of the large and rigorous quantitative studies (see for example work by Gillwald, Milek and Stork;  BimberRice and KatzWasserman and Richmond-Abbott) that have in fact shown in different countries, for different ICTs, that the “gender divide” is really a factor  other social divides, which can affect men equally.  This suggests that there are larger issues to be resolved than getting mobile phones into their hands, though that will certainly put them in a better position.

The larger issue is that most women at the (rural) BOP don’t often make the decision about getting connected, especially in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.  Often when there is only one mobile in the house, it is used and carried by the male of the household; once households are able to afford a second connection, women tend to get connected. So as far as “female friendly” packages, and female-headed telecenters go, its questionnable how successful these could be on a larger scale.

Perhaps more importantly than designing products which target women, telcos need to design ones that will make it more affordable for a poor family to get two phones at the same time – because the first one will almost certainly always go to the male (husband). Only once they can afford the second phone is there a chance of it going  to the female (wife). Similarly, the bulk and priority of the household communication budget will be toward the husband’s connection. The remnants left over will be available for the wife;  and as seen in the Pakistani case, it will be the husband who determines how often and for how much her mobile is topped up (as he will do it on her behalf.). So perhaps what would be relevant for telcos to think about  is (1) helping them to get connected together (so making the second connection more affordable); and (2) helping them (men AND women) make more money using the mobile – so that they have more money to allocate between both of them to spend on services (and also, the fact that his wife can make X amount of money using a mobile will only encourage him to get her connected faster).

Previous work by LIRNEasia on gendered access and use of phones at the BOP can be seen here and here.

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