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Why Does South Asia Have the World Largest Mobile Phone Gender Gap?

By Wayan Vota on February 13, 2019

india woman mobile phone

Today in India, 67% of men own mobile phones, but only 33% percent of women do. South Asian countries in general are clear outliers among countries of similar levels of development, with India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh exhibiting some of the world’s highest gender gaps in access to technology.

While the mobile phone gender gap matters in its own right, it is particularly problematic because it can exacerbate other important forms of inequality — in earnings, networking opportunities, and access to information.

A Tough Call: Understanding barriers to and impacts of women’s mobile phone adoption in India uses a range of sources – 125 original qualitative interviews, a literature review, and analysis of secondary quantitative data – to identify leading barriers to Indian women’s use of mobile phones, assess the importance of these barriers, and propose directions for further research into how to reduce them.

Why the Indian Mobile Phone Gender Gap?

Throughout the report, the researchers examined two broad, intersecting classes of barriers: economic and normative.

  • Economic barriers refer to factors directly related to the financial and human capital needed to own and operate mobile phones, as well as the economic “pull factors” that increase use, such as needing a phone for work.
  • Normative barriers include the social norms, customs, and individual beliefs that shape and constrain men’s and women’s roles in the household and society.

Notable findings include:

Women have nearly half of level of male phone ownership.

Men are 33 percentage points more likely to own a phone than women, on average. This constitutes nearly half of the level of male phone ownership. In comparison, the phone access gap is 12 percentage points. Yet, 52% of female phone borrowers report borrowing their phone from their husband, while male borrowers are most likely to access a phone through their children.

Mobile phone gender gap exists across all of Indian society

We disaggregate data by a range of demographic characteristics including age group, state of residence, marital status, educational attainment, urbanicity, and poverty status. While there is substantial variation in the gap, it is always 10 percentage points or higher. Thus, the mobile gap exists across Indian society.

A woman’s empowerment is as important as her income

We used survey data to create a women’s “empowerment” ranking, and asked whether this ranking or household income is a better predictor of the mobile gender gap, holding other background characteristics constant. Income and empowerment have similar explanatory power, which suggests normative and economic barriers are both important drivers of the mobile gender gap.

Women’s mobile phone usage challenges traditional gender norms.

Interviews reveal that phone usage can stir questions about girls’ “purity” prior to marriage and worries that women will be subject to digital harassment as reported in the media. After marriage, norms dictate that a woman’s primary responsibility is to take care of her family and household. This home-centric role leaves women with few opportunities to use the phone for socially-acceptable, “productive” purposes.

Do Normative or Economic Barriers Matter Most?

To date, no research has causally identified the strongest drivers of women’s lagging phone ownership in India. While preliminary evidence suggests normative barriers have some role to play, it is not clear which barriers are most constraining or in which direction the causal relationship flows.

  • Will lifting economic constraints subsequently change social norms?
  • Or will changing social norms cause women to own more phones?

The findings of this report will inform upcoming research aimed at causally identifying what interventions increase women’s mobile engagement. With evidence on the nature and strength of economic and normative barriers, it may be possible to design policies to reduce the cost of phones or work to change the customs surrounding their use.

This is a slightly edited version of the Executive Summary from A Tough Call: Understanding barriers to and impacts of women’s mobile phone adoption in India

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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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One Comment to “Why Does South Asia Have the World Largest Mobile Phone Gender Gap?”

  1. Moustapha njoya says:

    Thanks for this oportunities