Closing the gender gap in mobile phone access and use-1

Closing the gender gap in mobile phone access and use

Guest post by Shireen Santosham, June 3, 2015

Guest post by Shireen Santosham, GSMA Connected Women

by ‪Shireen Santosham, GSMA Connected Women

The good news:

The revolutionary power of technology is undeniable. In the last 20 years, mobile technology and access to the internet have helped to improve lives. Around the world, people can use mobiles to access health information as well as bank accounts, or educational and employment opportunities. Increasingly, mobile phones and internet access are also being associated with increased economic productivity and growth. For example, McKinsey and Company estimates that increased internet access could add 10 percent or $300 billion to Africa’s GDP by 2025.[1]

The not so good news:

Statistics on the global access to these mobile technologies, however, are misleading. They are based on the number of SIM cards, or connections, in the world, rather than on the actual number of individuals who own a mobile phone.[2] In the developing world, it is very common for individuals to own multiple SIM cards. So, in reality less than 50 percent of the global population owns a mobile phone and less than 40 percent have access to the internet.[3]

In fact, women are often the first to be left out of the mobile revolution.

In low- and middle-income countries alone, there are 1.7 billion females who do not own mobile phones, which is much greater than the remaining unconnected male population. This digital divide has negative implications in many areas, including for digital finance, which aims to help women gain access to financial services through mobile phones.

Understanding the gender gap in mobile phone access and use

Across these countries, women are less likely to own a mobile phone than men. Why does this gender gap exist and how severe is it? A new GSMA report, Bridging the gender gap: Mobile access and usage in low- and middle-income countries, provides some answers.The report suggests that besides the significant gender gap in mobile phone ownership, women also often use mobile phones less intensively than men, especially for sophisticated mobile services like mobile internet. This article explores some reasons behind the gap, and outlines the solutions needed to reduce it.

The gender gap in mobile phone ownership varies across regions and countries

200 million fewer women than men in low- and middle-income countries own mobile phones, which means that women in these countries are, on average, 14 percent less likely to own a mobile phone than men. But the gap is even greater in certain regions and countries. For example, in South Asia, women are 38 percent less likely to own a phone than men. Additionally, there are variations even in regions where the gender gap in mobile phone ownership[4] is close to the average, like in Sub-Saharan Africa (13%). Women in Niger, for instance, are 45 percent less likely to own a mobile phone than their male counterparts. Similarly, vast disparities can exist within countries. For example, in Mexico, the gender gap in mobile phone ownership is 26% in rural areas, but in urban areas women are only 2% less likely to own a phone than urban men.

These wide disparities in the gender gap in mobile phone ownership between regions, within regions, and within countries highlight the importance of understanding the local context and market. Although common trends emerge across countries, understanding the size of the gender gap in mobile phone ownership and the local factors, such as the cost of mobiles and social norms, that prevent women from owning and using mobile phones is important to close the gap.

Even when women own mobile phones, they use them less intensively to access the internet than men

Closing the gender gap in mobile phone access and use-2

Figure 1: Gender gap in mobile phone ownership by region

Women stand to gain from greater access to mobile phones, and from using the internet through mobiles. At least 64% of working women in every country we surveyed said a mobile phone increases (or would increase) their business and employment opportunities.[5] But, women in developing countries are moving up the digital ladder at a slower rate than men. For example, in Kenya (see figure 2, below), there is little difference between men and women in using voice and SMS services, but a large gender gap in mobile internet use. This trend is evident in nine out of 11 countries[6] in the GSMA’s study.

Closing the gender gap in mobile phone access and use-3

Figure 2: Gender gap in mobile phone usage in Kenya

The gender gap in mobile internet usage is disconcerting because it means that women may be ill-equipped to use technology tools at a time when the world is increasingly dependent on mobile phones and the internet.

Why do women access and use mobile phones and internet less than men?

Across the 11 countries studied by Connected Women, the top five barriers to mobile phone ownership and use by women are:

  • High cost of mobile handsets & credit
  • Poor network quality & coverage
  • Security concerns & harassment over mobile phones
  • Lack of trust in agents & operators
  • Low technical literacy & confidence

Women across all these countries tend to experience these barriers more acutely than men. For example, in regards to cost as a barrier, women are often more price sensitive since they tend to earn less and often have less control over household expenditures than men. Social norms, moreover, can inhibit women from gaining access to technology. In India, 72 percent of male phone owners interviewed said they made the decision on which handset they purchased versus only 19 percent of female phone owners. In fact, this dynamic can mean the difference between a woman having access to an internet-enabled phone or simply a basic handset. In most countries studied, men had more sophisticated handsets than women.

Security and harassment on phones is also a greater concern for women than men in most countries in the study. In some countries, fear of harassment by strangers resulted in restricted access to mobile phones and internet for young women more than for young men. Young women would therefore be less equipped to use technology tools than their male counterparts.

Closing the gender gap in mobile access and use can lead to substantial commercial and social benefits.

It makes good business sense to reduce the gender gap. The report estimates that closing the gender gap in mobile phone ownership and use could add an additional $170B USD to the mobile phone industry by 2020. There are also tremendous social benefits for societies if they ensure that women own and use mobile phones. Women in low- and middle-income countries recognize the benefits on mobile phone ownership.

Women also report substantial socio-economic benefits from owning mobile phones. Besides the educational benefits reported by female students, female entrepreneurs also report benefiting from increased employment opportunities from owning mobile phones. Women are also more likely to invest these benefits in their children.[7] Mobile phones are a large-scale, efficient tool for delivering public and private services such as mobile financial services, emergency response, and government-to-person payments. Finally, there is a social imperative to ensure equal access to information and digital skills for both men and women.

What can be done to close the gender gap in mobile phone access and use?

There is an exceptional opportunity for policy-makers and the private sector to work hand-in-hand to address this issue. Key areas for collaboration include making mobile phones and services more affordable; increasing the availability of gender-disaggregated data in the use of ICTs; and addressing security and harassment concerns for women when using mobile phones. Although there is no silver bullet, a combination of approaches could help close the digital divide between men and women globally.

For a more comprehensive list of recommendations by stakeholder, please download the full report here.

About the GSMA Connected Women Programme

GSMA Connected Women works with partners to deliver socio-economic benefits to women and the broader mobile ecosystem through greater inclusion of women across the industry. The programme is focused on increasing women’s access to and use of mobile phones and life-enhancing mobile services in developing markets, as well as closing the digital skills gender gap, attracting and retaining female talent, and encouraging female leadership in technology on a global basis. For more information, please visit the GSMA Connected Women website at: www.gsma.com/connectedwomen. Follow GSMA Connected Women on Twitter, @GSMAm4d #ConnectedWomen.


  • [1] Source McKinsey & Company
  • [2] GSMA Intelligence
  • [3]GSMA Intelligence data on unique subscribers.
  • [4] Gender gap in mobile phone ownership (%) = [male phone owners (% of male population) - female phone owners (% of female population)]/ male phone owners (% of male population).
  • [5] Includes working women – both phone owners and non-phone owners
  • [6]The 11 countries where primary data was conducted were Mexico, Colombia, Jordan, Egypt, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, Turkey, India, Indonesia, China
  • [7] World Bank
Shireen Santosham photo

About the Author

Shireen Santosham

Senior Manager (Global), Connected Women Programme M4D, GSMA Connected Women

Shireen joined the GSMA Mobile for Development group in 2013 after 4 years as a business strategy consultant at McKinsey and as an independent entrepreneur. Prior to her consulting career, Shireen worked for over 7 years in impact investing and international development for venture philanthropists, NGOs, and governments. At GSMA, Shireen leads all research and outreach activities for the Connected Women program that aims to provide base of the pyramid women life-enhancing services through mobile technology throughout Africa and Asia. Recent projects include a 12 country field research study to assess access and use of mobile technology by women in the developing world, which was announced as a Clinton Global Initiative Commitment in September 2014. Shireen holds a M.B.A. from Harvard Business School and an M.P.A in International Development from Harvard Kennedy School and is a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Learn more about Shireen Santosham
Shireen Santosham photo

Shireen Santosham

Senior Manager (Global), Connected Women Programme M4D, GSMA Connected Women