The Mobile Phone Gender Gap: Why Does it Matter and What Can We Do?

The Mobile Phone Gender Gap: Why Does it Matter and What Can We Do?

A study by EPoD and the Institute for Financial Management and Research shows just 33 percent of Indian women use mobile phones.

By: Rohini Pande, Simone Schaner

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In India, only 33 percent of women use mobile phones as against 67 percent of men. This is a wider gap than in other countries at India’s level of development – wider, in fact than many poorer countries where mobile data is more costly. This may seem trivial, given the many other disadvantages Indian women suffer — India slipped 21 slots down this year’s Gender Equality Index published by World Economic Forum, primarily because of the economic disadvantages women suffer due to low access to employment.

Research shows that mobile technology has the potential to help women close gender gaps in outcomes like employment — phones can help job seekers connect to networks and learn about job opportunities. They help buyers and sellers access the best price for market goods. In Africa, access to mobile money has been shown to help households weather hard times and ease poor women’s transition from agriculture to entrepreneurship. Given the mobile gender gap, the technology may work the opposite way in India, making other gender gaps worse.

So, why are Indian women less able to take advantage of mobile technology and what can be done to reverse course?

No specific gender gap exists in a vacuum. We need to look at structural factors that are inhibiting Indian women from realising their full socioeconomic potential and filter the problem of gender gaps through that framework.

Our team researching the problem through EPoD India at IFMR, a joint initiative of Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) at Harvard Kennedy School and the Institute for Financial Management and Research, looked at the studies that have been done on mobile phone access, analysed data from several large-scale surveys, and conducted 125 in-depth interviews with a diverse group of women and men in different parts of the country. One important finding of our study can be summarised in the graph below.

The blue line shows the percentage of males who use phones by age, the red line shows women, and the blue line shows the percentage of women who marry.

The chart is based on data from the 2012 Indian Human Development Survey where each member of the household was asked about phone use, so it doesn’t necessarily reflect ownership. Children’s interest in using phones tends to increase as they approach their teens. We see a striking emergence of the male-female gap in mobile use as girls enter puberty progress toward marriage age – you can see how the rising blue line corresponds to a flattening red line. By adulthood (age 18), the mobile gender gap is 21 percentage points.

Why should adolescence mark the emergence of the gender mobile gap? Our qualitative work suggests that as girls become more likely to marry, their use of phones is constrained by the social norms that govern courtship and chastity.

A common reason for limiting access for young girls – cited across the country and particularly strong in rural areas – was reputational concerns: girls’ use of phones was associated with promiscuity and a threat to the family name. In the most conservative area we visited — in rural Madhya Pradesh — a majority of interviewees stated that women should not own phones before marriage. While they would acknowledge that it takes both a boy and a girl to engage in a pre-marital relationship, they said the social costs of violating purity norms fall almost exclusively on the girl.

“On one hand, there are good uses of mobile phones,” one male respondent told us, “then on the other hand, mobiles are also being used for bad activities. Mostly these incidents affect girls, so girls should lower their use of mobile phones.”

In the urban areas we visited such as Delhi, there was wide concern about young unmarried women being subjected to harassment via smartphone, a danger widely reported in the media.

This tradeoff fails to fully account for the benefits phones can give to a girl. A phone may expose her to harassment by strangers, but it also might offer her access support networks if she is being harassed by a relative. A phone may allow her to pursue romantic relationships, but it also may allow her to pursue a career. One female college student told us, “When a girl is talking on the phone, they will surely think she is talking to a boy. They never understand that a girl could be talking about her schoolwork.”

A bright spot in our interviews was that many younger people, especially women, readily acknowledge the benefits phones can bring to women and girls. But these same individuals lament that, “People’s thinking is very bad, their thoughts are very narrow-minded,” as a young woman in Delhi told us, and many doubt that this will change. So the challenge is how to structure policy to help people use phones in a context where there is resistance from the older generation.

How can we begin to do this? Some state governments in India have initiated programs to subsidise phone ownership, but just giving a young woman a phone may not solve the access problem. You can imagine her taking it home and handing it over to her husband or father, leaving her access restricted.

As economists, we want to think about how to raise the benefits that families see in girls’ phone use to a point where they outweigh the costs the families perceive, in terms of both money and safety.

Perhaps we need to be creative in thinking of ways to incentivizing phone use by women that can’t be subverted. One idea would be to harness the power of conditionality. In the last 20 years, governments around the world have made programmes conditional. If you welfare payments depend on school attendance or doctor’s visits, that gives parents strong incentives to educate and vaccinate their children. Combine this idea with new voice-recognition technology and messaging systems, and you can imagine a system where the government makes school scholarship programs for girls conditional on phoned-in checkups and informational calls with the recipients themselves. This could have a dual advantage, giving the ministry a channel to contact the girl, and the girl a channel to contact the world.

This article first appeared in The Indian Express.