After years of progress towards women’s equal digital inclusion, we are now seeing a slowdown and, in some cases, a reversal. This is according to The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2022 which shows that low- and middle-income countries, 59 million additional women started using mobile internet in 2021, a significant drop from last year when nearly twice as many started using it.
The report by GSMA indicates that women remain 7 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone, and are 16percent less likely to use mobile internet. This, the survey says, means that there are still 264 million fewer women than men accessing mobile internet.
In all 10 of the survey countries, women are still less likely than men to own a mobile phone and use mobile internet. The gender gap in mobile internet use also tends to be higher than the gender gap in mobile ownership.
“Despite these similarities, men’s and women’s mobile ownership, mobile internet use and the resultant gender gaps vary considerably by country,” the report says.
Given these stark figures, GSMA is urgently calling for significant and coordinated efforts to reduce the gender gap and ensure that women can participate fully in a more digitised society.
The report highlights how the mobile internet gender gap has remained flat in most regions, but widened in South Asia, as it explores the key barriers preventing women’s equal mobile ownership and access to mobile internet as well as the widening smartphone ownership gender gap.
Findings from this report are based on results from over 11,000 face-to-face surveys across 10 low- and middle-income countries, and subsequent modelling and analysis of the survey data.
“Additional qualitative research was conducted in Kenya and India to build on the findings of last year’s report and to develop a more nuanced understanding of women’s access to and use of mobile internet, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report notes.
A similar report in 2021 indicated some modest improvement, with the global mobile gender gap actually shrinking to 15 percent in 2021 from 19 percent in 2019.
The improvement was driven mainly by a record number of women in South Asia who are now using mobile Internet services. However, the report states, the same cannot be said for sub-Saharan Africa where things actually got worse over the past year.
This year’s report contain a number of important findings. It says women’s uptake of mobile internet in low-and middle-income countries continues to increase, but the rate of adoption has slowed.
Across low- and middle-income countries, 60 per cent of women now use mobile internet.
Only 59 million additional women in low-and middle-income countries started using mobile internet in 2021 compared to 110 million in 2020, it says. This, it adds, is significant since mobile remains the primary way most people access the internet, especially women.
“The mobile internet gender gap had been reducing, but progress has stalled. Across low-
and middle-income countries, women are now 16 per cent less likely than men to use mobile internet, which translates into 264 million fewer women than men,” it noted
“By comparison, the mobile internet gender gap in low- and middle-income countries was 25 per cent in 2017 and 15 per cent in 2020. The gender gap is widest in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa and has remained relatively unchanged in all regions since 2017 except South Asia.”
In South Asia, the mobile internet gender gap had narrowed significantly, from 67 per cent in 2017 to 36 per cent in 2020, but has now widened to 41 per cent. The study attributes this to continued increase in mobile internet adoption among men but no notable increase among women, particularly in India where men’s mobile internet use increased from 45 per cent to 51 per cent while women’s has remained flat at 30 per cent.
The report says the gender gap in smartphone ownership has widened slightly.
“Over the past five years, the gender gap in smartphone ownership had been
reducing year on year across low- and middle- income countries, from 20 per cent in 2017 to 16 per cent in 2020. Women are now 18 per cent less likely than men to own a smartphone, which translates into 315 million fewer women than men owning a smartphone,” it states.
“This year’s increase has been driven by an increase in the smartphone gender gap in South Asia, as well as a continued increase in the smartphone gender gap in Sub- Saharan Africa. However, once women own a smartphone, their awareness and use of mobile internet is almost on par with men,” says the GSMA report.
Across low- and middle-income countries, the survey points out that the underlying gender gap in mobile ownership remains largely unchanged. Women, it notes, are still seven per cent less likely than men to own a mobile phone.
“The 372 million women still without a mobile phone are proving difficult to
reach. The top barriers to mobile ownership are affordability, literacy and digital skills and safety and security,” it says.
Mobile owners are using their phones for a wider range of activities, with notable increases in the use of mobile internet for video calls, listening to music and watching videos. However, the study notes, there is a persistent gender gap, with female mobile owners using a narrower range of mobile services than male owners.
“Both men and women continue to use their phones for a wider range of activities in most of the survey countries, but there is a persistent gender gap,” the research shows.
“Women tend to use their mobile phones for a narrower range of activities than men on a weekly basis. Owning a smartphone substantially increases diversity of use for both
men and women.”
In some countries, a significant proportion of smartphone owners do not use mobile internet, particularly women. In Bangladesh, for instance, 26 per cent of women who own a smartphone do not use mobile internet compared to 20 per cent of men.
Moreover, the survey says, women are still less likely to be aware of mobile internet than men,
and while awareness has been increasing, growth has slowed, even in countries where awareness remains relatively low.
Among those who are aware of mobile internet, the top-reported barriers to mobile internet use are still literacy and digital skills, affordability (primarily of handsets) and safety and security.
Among low income groups, there is evidence that the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has made handsets and mobile internet even less affordable and affected access to smartphones and mobile internet use.
“Social norms also continue to play an important role. Across the survey countries, women were less likely than men to have chosen their model of mobile phone even when they paid for it themselves,” the reports says
Structural inequalities in society and discriminative social norms also remain a challenge. Even when women have the same levels of education, income, literacy, and employment as men, they are still less likely to own a mobile phone or use mobile internet.
Women were more likely than men to access the internet exclusively via mobile in almost all markets surveyed but affordability remains a huge barrier in SSA where it has risen to be the top hurdle for men and the second most pressing challenge for women.
“In Kenya, 63 percent of male Internet users said they only used the Internet via a mobile device compared to 79 percent of females,” the 2021 report stated.
This reliance by women on mobile, the report noted, demonstrates the disproportionate benefit of increasing their access.
During the 2020 GSMA survey, 38 percent of Kenyan men and 33 percent of women who were aware of mobile internet, but had not used it, cited affordability as the single biggest barrier to adoption.
“If women are to become equal citizens in a more digital, post-Covid-19 world, closing the mobile gender gap has never been more critical,” said Mats Granryd, director general of the GSMA.
“I urge policymakers, the private sector and the international community to take note of the important findings laid out in the Mobile Gender Gap Report because only concerted action and collaboration will enable women and their families to reap the full benefits of connectivity.”
Over the years, GSMA’s Mobile Gender Gap Report series has found that countries with the lowest levels of mobile penetration tend to have the widest gender gaps in mobile ownership and mobile internet use.
“There are, however, some exceptions where countries have high levels of mobile ownership but relatively wide gender gaps in mobile internet use,” the survey notes.
“In particular, Kenya and Nigeria have high levels of mobile ownership among both men and women, but the mobile internet gender gaps are wide, at 38 per cent and 36 per cent, respectively.”
In Kenya, the popularity of M-Pesa, Safaricom’s mobile money offering, appears to have boosted mobile ownership among both men and women, but there is still relatively low uptake of mobile internet, especially among women. Across the survey countries, the gender gap in mobile ownership has changed very little over the years.
Meanwhile, the report points out that the gender gap in mobile internet use has narrowed in Kenya and Pakistan (although still substantial), but widened in India, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Guatemala. In India and Bangladesh, men’s mobile internet use has increased while women’s has remained flat.
“In Nigeria, men’s use has remained flat, while women’s use has decreased. In Guatemala, both men and women have increased their mobile internet use, but men have experienced a higher growth rate. These changes have all contributed to an overall widening of the mobile internet gender gap across LMICs in 2021,” it says.