The very first Tech Salon to take place in London on Wednesday 20 March occurred just three days after the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) announced that connecting women to ICTs would become a focal point of the post-2015 development agenda.
Led by discussants Chris Locke, Managing Director of Mobile for Development, GSMA, which houses the GSMA mWomen Programme, and Henriette Kolb, CEO of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, the well-timed Tech Salon topic was “Empowering Women and Girls with Mobiles,” and sought to ask questions about the potential and the pitfalls of using mobile as a tool for these purposes.
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The discussion began with the revelation that Iraqi mobile network operator Asiacell, supported by the GSMA mWomen Programme, had conducted research to understand women’s mobile needs in its market, and through developing a mobile offering serving those needs, had connected 1.8 million women gain access to mobile services in less than two years. Many of the attendees marveled at the figure, and the discussion then turned to questions of “Why?” mobile products and services that target women are even needed and “How?” to help more women gain access to mobile services.
Mobile phones, like all technologies, are not gender neutral
It was shared that some mobile network operators, like a few of the people present at the Salon, do not understand how use of and access to mobiles phones by women is different from men:
“Why are women different? What apart from affordability is different between men and women in using mobile phones? What makes it a gender service? Does it mean the phone is pink?”
In response to these questions, anecdotes were shared about how the lack of women pictured using mobile phones in marketing material can inadvertently send the message that mobile phones were not for them, which can widen the gender digital divide. Also, particularly in countries where cultural norms mean it’s considered inappropriate for women to interact with men outside the family such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the lack of female phone agents for women to interact with can be yet another barrier to overcome.
While not all were enthusiastic about stereotypical use of colours to denote services for women, the successes that Oxfam’s Pink Phone Project have had were offered to illustrate that in some cases, thinking “pink” may help deter men from taking phones away from women to use for themselves.
If uptake by women is the goal, understanding the users’ needs and contexts is key – and complex
Once it was conveyed that mobiles are not gender neutral, attention then turned to how best to approach the development of mobile-based products and services for women. Given that no one woman is the same, and because women have diverse needs and contexts in which their mobile access and use will occur, many felt that this was no easy task:
“We tried to implement an IVR system but the people thought that it was a ghost.” “We are often asked what works. We really struggle with the evidence side of things.” “How do you judge the impact of text messages and access as it relates to women?”
Ladies in waiting?
Furthermore, it was acknowledged that civil society’s speed of innovation in the creation of mobile-based products and services for women has remained slow in comparison to the pace with which mobile moves:
“I think the NGO world needs to change its practice to keep up with the mobile industry’s decision making.” “When is a product good enough to benefit women? What happens in year 4 or 5 of a donor cycle?”
The Tech Salon ended with more questions raised than answers provided. Nevertheless, one point was made that seemed to bring the morning’s discussions full circle by understanding that gender and mobile matters extend beyond counting the number of women and girls who have access:
“Changing perceptions of males in communities must be done in any gender-focused project. Empowerment of women alone not enough.”
This is a guest blog written by Ronda Zelezny-Green, the Knowledge Manager for the GSMA mEducation team and U.S. Fulbright Student Scholar to Kenya, 2013-2014. This post also contains anonymised commentary from event attendees.