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Mobile Phones, Like All Technologies, Are Gender Neutral

By Wayan Vota on May 10, 2013


At the first Technology Salon in London, we had a very thoughtful discussion on the implications of gender in using mobile technologies to stimulate social and economic development. Sign up to get invited to future Salons in London and elsewhere.

Recently, Ronda Zelezny-Green published her take on the Salon and one of her points I disagree with. She says mobile phones, like all technologies, are not gender neutral.

Mobile phones are gender neutral

Look at any stock high-production volume mobile phone. Turned off, is it “male” or “female”? Is it a masculine tool or a feminine one? Now turn it on. Has its gender connotations changed? No. At the basic level, when first purchased, mobile phones are as gender neutral as humans can make an electronics tool.

The goal of a mobile phone manufacturer is to sell the most phones with the least variation between handsets to minimize production costs. So in hardware we have waves of black, grey, and sometimes white phones. In software, the user interface is almost always as neutral as possible, from the colors to the images and menus.

Now this isn’t due to a desire by the mobile phone industry to appeal just to men or even to focus on men. It’s the desire to sell as much product as possible to everyone, male or female. In pursuit of that goal, they’ve made phones so gender neutral as to be close to bland. Do we really need another dark glass candybar?

In fact, here is a challenge: please do find a high volume mobile phone that is inherently “male” or “female” in its design. Good luck!

No mobile phone stays gender neutral.

Now look at your own mobile phone. It shows your desire and ability to customize its hardware and software and says as much about you as you want it to. Since the first days of mobile devices, aftermarket manufacturers have offered a dizzying array of customization options and original equipment manufacturers have made a massive shift to providing software personalization options for the user.

In addition, once purchased, mobile phones can take on great significance in the local culture and reinforce or upend existing power dynamics – between genders, generations, and the general community.

Here is where we can have gender influences. Here is where we can talk about phones not being gender neutral. And here is where there is a gender divide in mobile phone access. Women, often in Muslim countries, do not have the same level of access that men do. Girls, regardless of religion, are often at a disadvantage versus boys.

Overall, the gender gap in access is around 300 million – as there were only 1.1 billion female subscribers versus 1.4 billion male subscribers to mobile phone services in 2010.

So the need for equal access and the usefulness of mobile devices to empower women and girls is not questioned. What is up for discussion is how “genderized” mobile phones are or can be, and what affect that might have on adoption.

Wanna join in debates like this? sign up to get invited to future Salons in London, Nairobi, San Francisco, New York City, and Washington, DC.

Filed Under: Solutions, Women in Tech
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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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16 Comments to “Mobile Phones, Like All Technologies, Are Gender Neutral”

  1. John Hawker says:

    I disagree with you Wayan, I worked on some of the first mobile platforms for video to mobile handsets, the target audience from day 1 was young white collar male, the trend setters, the first movers.

    Virtually all ICT innovations are aimed at this group, as they are the ones who have disposable income, willing to change platforms quickly.

    They are the ones who buy a large enough volume of devices to allow the manufacturers then to chase other market segments.

    Yes hardware isn’t male or female, but it is often, always, targeted to certain market segments.

    It is no co-incidence that one of the first places Nokia released a dual sim hand set was Africa, where flipping between providers is very common, and which market segment has the disposable income?

    Nearly always it’s more male than female, that alone is a market segmentation, and one that is exploited by companies.

    I remember in Kenya seeing a mature market re-act when Huawei introduced low end smart phones in bright colours, aiming at a youth and also female audience, the comments in the telephone shop that I took interest in this mobile, “That would be good for your daughter”

    All companies research their markets, who has $’s and how to target them.

    In Thailand AIS aimed a lot of marketing at rural older family members, often women, to take advantage that they are the ones who’ll use the device.

    I believe (Correct me if wrong) that Grameen and their mobile platform in Bangladesh did the same. They target specific gender and socio groups. (Kat do you read this list, please comment if you do)

    To ignore the roll that market segmentation, that takes into account a huge range of socioeconomic factors, is just naive.

    The manufacturers must make a profit, especially in a market with slimmer margins than rich countries, watch out, they will make devices, “Male” “Female” trendy, biz etc, whatever they few as a market opportunity.

    How to re-act? Maybe do what someone pointed out at to AIS mobile in Thailand, show the company the $’s at the bottom of the pyramid.

    It’s something that organizations that we’re all associated with could do.

  2. Kevin D says:

    “Mobile Phones, Like All Technologies, Are Gender Neutral”

    Is the birth control bill gender neutral technology, too? 😉

    • I will have to agree with Kevin D above. Birth control pills, created by men as a technology for women to use that can wreak havoc on our bodies and even kill us… what sane woman would do something like that to her sisters?!

      To share an excerpt from my MSc dissertation: “Wajcman (2010) also posits that gender “…can be thought of as materialised in technology […]. Such a mutual shaping approach recognises that the gendering of technology affects the entire life trajectory of an artefact” (p. 7).” The entire life trajectory of a technology INCLUDES the design by people who are generally not women and production in places that are generally in the Global North. The concentration of power in mobile phone design and production is decidedly male and white, so there is no way that the technology is gender-neutral until it reaches the hands of the public.

      One of the interesting things that I have observed throughout this debate we’ve been having is that the most vociferous people who think that technology is gender-neutral are also usually men, and like John Hawker referenced earlier, usually a member of the racial/ethnic majority in the Global North. It’s hard to understand why technology is not gender-neutral when it is catered to you and your demographic!

      I discussed this with a fellow gender and mobile researcher, Leslie Dodson of University of Colorado-Boulder at the Atlas Institute and she says the following:
      “What if, as is the case with my Berber friends and research colleagues, her text tapped in with female fingers will not be read on by his male eyes on his phone. It’s too simple to say that the tech isn’t part of the issue. Isn’t the tech an extension and/or a vehicle for our social, cultural, gender-informed lives? How is his argument any different from the NRA’s argument that ‘guns don’t kill people. people kill people’?”

      • Wayan Vota says:

        Ah good one. So if I disagree with you then I am both a) a privileged elite, and b) the same as the NRA. So I’ll only point out that most phones are designed and almost all made in China, which is in the northern hemisphere, but certainly not part of the “global north” or “white”.

        • Leslie Dodson says:

          Wayan, I want to be clear that my reference to the NRA is a comment on the quality — and similarity — of the two arguments, both of which assert the ‘neutrality’ of devices. What Ronda and I discussed is that guns, mobiles and other technologies are defined by their use, not just their existence. That makes the user vital to any discussion of the device. No offense intended. Your posts are always thought-provoking.

          All the best.

  3. Hi Wayan, you can take my comments out of context if you wish but I most certainly did not say that disagreement with me or others on this point means you are privileged elite or the same as the NRA, but it is somewhat obvious that at least part a has bearing on your opinion. Who will mostly be producing phones in China, men or women? Designing them?

    • Wayan Vota says:

      My point is that it doesn’t matter if all men or all women designed phones – they would still come out about where they are today for two reasons – phone design is driven by the capacity of the underlying technology (phones have interactive screens vs. keypads now because the tech is there for it now) and such extensive focus testing with men, women, children, adults (and the dead if they had money to spend), that any gender bias was stripped out long ago.

      • Wayan Vota says:

        Of course the only way to truly settle this debate is go back in time and make sure women were the original mobile phone designers. Which would have a gender issue as it would exclude men from the design process.

        • I can no longer engage with straw man fallacies but suffice it to say I didn’t state or mean that women and not men should have been the original mobile phone designers.

      • John Hawker says:


        Err the opposite actually, the focus groups are there to test and enhance specific features to target identified markets.

  4. John Hawker says:

    Hi Ronda,

    Mind if I take exception to the “Who will design them in China” comment?

    I know a number of women in key engineering and other positions in China.

    The argument isn’t so much about who designs them, but the nature of capitalism and commerce.

    All these companies know that early adopters are young male white color workers and often target them with features to launch a new phone.

    I’d like to see that change, and more companies recognize the potential of female consumers, BOP consumers etc, and I do think that is (slowly) happening.

    But like all businesses they see their markets and target accordingly. Female or male in those companies by culture and training don’t break out of that mould much.

    Now it’s easy to build your own low cost phone, I’d really like to see Africa get involved in this, many companies we don’t associate with phone manufacture are doing so.

    Ubuntu will release their own handset I believe soon, as very few manufacturers want to use Ubuntu Mobile O/S, even though it’s be recognized as better than the latest Android.


    • There are growing numbers of women, John, I agree, but similar to the US there is a considerable dearth of women in the STEM professions. Please see the WISAT website for reference. Even with the growing numbers, what I know from industry is that there are not many in the engineering or design-related roles in most places, including China.

      Like Wacjman, I still do believe that the entire artefact trajectory influences the gendering of a technology. Yet, like you I think that the way capitalism is presently driven means that those without easily addressable buying power are usually ignored. I’m excited by the possibilities that new technologies like Ubuntu bring and hope we see more people creating their own designs, similar to how the Way C tablet designer from Congo did for his context.

      • John Hawker says:

        Hi Ronda, Good web site, Thanks!

        Maybe I am lucky, but Thailand and the STEM companies i work with have a good record I think, I work closest with ThaiCom, the CEO is female, ex Head of IBM Thailand, the CCO (ex President) is female, key people in finance, operations, and a number of the Engineering teams I work with are female.

        Two ways to look at this, the company is pro-active in equal rights, or, as I think the truth is, Thailand is far better in equal rights (though not perfect) than many other countries.

        Maybe something to be learnt when things go well?


  5. Are you based in Thailand? That sounds like a progressive context you’re in. You are right, if a company/entity is proactive about gender equality, then there probably will be situations like what you’ve described. I can’t wait for the day that is the rule and not the exception. It would be wonderful to have a case study on what you’ve shared, too. Are you also working with AIS?

  6. John Hawker says:

    Agree it’s good when it’s the norm, but the problem of a capitalist structure rather than social responsible enterprises remains, regardless of sex.

    About to work on a new project with AIS< however very boring technology/new system to be designed, though it does have possible benefits for rural development and education.


    • Hi John, my apologies for the delay but went away on a trip! Would you please e-mail me at rondazg3 AT Gmail dot com? I would like to ask you some questions about Thailand offline. Thank you!