How technology widens the gender gap

March 21, 2014

The Internet and mobile phones have transformed our connections to people around the world. This technology has also, however, led to a widening gender gap in poorer countries. For it is largely men who control the information revolution that helps to educate, inform and empower.

In low and middle-income countries, a woman is 21 percent less likely than a man to own a mobile phone, according to research done by GSMA. In Africa, women are 23 percent less likely than a man to own a cell phone. In the Middle East the figure is 24 percent and in South Asia, 37 percent,

The factors driving women’s lack of connectivity vary from community to community. But the end result is always the same: disempowerment.

Women are not just missing out on educational and economic opportunities because they don’t own mobile phones. They are losing a voice.

This disturbing finding is highlighted by the United Nations/Overseas Development Institute-ledMY World survey, a major, inclusive global poll. Respondents were asked to rank their priorities — including political freedoms, better healthcare, protection from violence and crime — in making the world better. They could vote paper, online or by mobile phone. The results will help world leaders as they deliberate on the post-2015 global development agenda this week, during the conference of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women.

The survey has already gathered 1.5 million votes. Women are just as keen as men to have their views heard — engagement offline is a 50-50 split between women and men; online women have voted more than men, with a 52-48 split.

But mobile voting has told a different story. The difference in response rates between the sexes is stark. Of the roughly 380,000 respondents who took the survey via mobile, only 25 percent were women. Consider Yemen, where 121,000 people voted on their mobile phones. Of those, 81,000 were men.

Overall, women respondents picked education, healthcare and better job opportunities as their top priorities in making the world better. But if you saw only the mobile vote, their views would have been diluted because men dominated.

If women owned mobile phones in equal numbers, their access to education, healthcare and better jobs would indeed be improved.

Getting more mobile phones into the hands of women in low- and middle-income countries will not be easy because the reasons behind their lack of ownership are so varied. But there are some solutions.

Women in these countries typically cite three key barriers: mobile phones are too expensive, the monthly bills are too high or there is no urgent need to own one.

Governments should help lower these barriers. They should set up transparent regulatory systems that would encourage more mobile phone providers to enter the market. More competition means lower prices and more affordable plans.

In addition, governments should ensure that women have access to microfinance plans to help purchase phones. They should strive to make equal access to mobile connectivity part of their development plans.

Governments should also subsidize computer and smartphone ownership for low-income people.

A mobile phone can bring benefits to women, and many of these we in the West take for granted: personal safety, reliable connection to friends and family and access to commerce and job opportunities.

Most important for a world dominated by Facebook and Twitter and e-polls, a mobile phone gives women a voice.


PHOTO (TOP): A girl from an underprivileged background learns to use a computer at Mashal School on the outskirts of Islamabad, January 24, 2013. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

PHOTO (INSERT 1): A technician shows a cell phone to a customer in his store in Khartoum, December 21, 2011. REUTERS/ Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Pratima Mandal, a 19 year-old Indian village girl, uses a WLL(Wireless Local Loop) mobile phone to talk to her family members from Madhabpur village, while other village women wait for their turn, 100km south (62miles) from the eastern Indian city of Calcutta, August 3, 2003. REUTERS/File


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Tech is a guy thing. Most chicks wouldn’t understand.

Yeah, there’s a few like Marissa. Maybe she understands, but she got where she is selling stuff created by dudes.

Posted by f00 | Report as abusive

The use of mobile phones is irrelevant in countries where women spend most of their time at home.

What matters is ” The survey has already gathered 1.5 million votes. Women are just as keen as men to have their views heard — engagement offline is a 50-50 split between women and men; online women have voted more than men, with a 52-48 split.”

That’s encouraging.

Posted by Somerton1951 | Report as abusive

I cannot help but have the reaction: “Yeah, so what?”

If women want to learn “technology” (what an intellectually crippled concept it is to refer to information relationships as “technology” — but, another day), I don’t see anyone stopping them. Go right ahead.

What women are going to perish, or, heavens forfend, be thrust into the eternal fires of discrimination and inferiority, because they don’t know “technology”? For 40,000 years, they weren’t troubled by not knowing how to wear armor. What’s the big deal? Frankly, women seem to be doing a lot better than men in most respects. Vive la difference.

Posted by LoboPreto | Report as abusive

With seven billion people, it’s easy to find bad things. As bad things go, this barley qualifies. If you’re worried about how women are treated around the world, let’s start with human trafficking, beatings, servitude, castration and the other bad things first.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Just because more men have phones than women doesn’t mean women don’t benefit. Ah but of course women are always the losers and the government (ie men) should help. These articles are always so, and this may be too strong of a word, naive. People’s freedom of speech is related to their economic development. These countries need your investment dollars more than charity. When these countries are rich enough, the women will have phones. When countries are poor, the women tend to the home while the men need to provide for their families, so they need tech like cell phones. Its just economics.

Posted by MaxClark | Report as abusive

My female students walk around with cell phones sticking out of their back pockets only when they’re not using them.

Does having a cell phone empower them or give them access to better education?

Absolutely not! Cell phones are a huge distractor in class. They don’t use them to vote online or to do research. Mostly they text each other when they’re too far from each other to talk, listen to music, and play video games.

The phoneless girls in poor countries might just be getting more education because they *don’t* have technology.

Posted by UrDrighten | Report as abusive

[…] are also cultural barriers to gender equality in the workplace – a problem pronounced in technology fields world over, from Dakar to Detroit to Da […]

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