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10 Observations on Empowering Women and Girls with Mobile Devices

At the recent Technology Salon on “How Can We Get Beyond Access and Really Empower Women and Girls with Mobiles?” we had a room full of thought leaders and decision makers in the gender and mobiles space debating how women and girls can be truly empowered through mobile technology.


The discussion was informed by Henriette Kolb, Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, and Chris Locke, GSMA Mobile for Development who were our lead discussants. I am Dan Mount and here is the summary of our collective conversations:

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Role of the mobile industry in driving development

In a context where mobile technology is increasingly ubiquitous in the developing world – the mobile industry can maximise its developmental impact through a) supporting the dissemination of health and agricultural information; and b) by leveraging the scale of the industry to foster development (M4D).

For example, across both rural and urban areas mobile networks frequently represent the predominant infrastructure in emerging markets, which presents opportunities to leverage that network to achieve inclusion for underserved populations and communities. Advances in Machine to Machine (M2M) communication solutions and the processing of mobile micro-payments have supported the development of pilot projects offering pre-pay and “pay as you go” access to affordable energy and water (see 2013 GSMA report on Mobile Enabled Community Services).

Pathways to increasing female access to mobile

In terms of increasing female access to mobile technology, much can be achieved by persuading mobile operators to continue with existing marketing and demand driving strategies – but including a specific focus on engaging women. In April 2011 Asiacell (the second largest mobile operator in Iraq) launched the Almas Line product line which exclusively targeted the female market, supported by a television advertising campaign and a free “bye-bye service” which allows users to block abusive texts and calls from up to 20 mobile numbers. Since the 2011 product launch the number of Iraqi women with mobile subscriptions has risen from 20% to 40% – an increase of 1.8 million.

Mobile financial services

A report published in February 2013 on Women and Mobile Financial Services in Emerging Markets looks at the barriers to female access and specific needs of women across five countries (Indonesia, Kenya, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and Tanzania). In Tanzania 34% of women reporting an interest in using mobile financial services cited the lack of a mobile phone as the main reason for not having done so.

During the salon discussion it was also suggested that increasing the presence of women within mobile industry sales channels (as sales agents) would have the dual benefit of boosting female employment, as well as allowing women to purchase mobile products and services from other women (instead of predominantly dealing with men which can represent a dissuading factor in certain cultures).

Key barriers

Key barriers to female mobile adoption were listed as:

  • Cost/affordability
  • Cultural barriers (including prevailing perceptions of the appropriate/traditional role of 
women in Muslim society)
  • Fear of technology
  • Lack of perceived need or appreciation of the benefits of mobile technology
  • The impact of telecommunications market maturity

The maturity of the domestic mobile market is also an important factor. Mobile operators are not usually incentivised to analyse or segment a national market when mobile penetration levels are at 50-60% as phones are already flying off the shelves. The incentives usually increase as the market reaches saturation. However, smaller operators seeking to build market share will often see a business case in conducting such market research/analysis at an earlier stage.

Tackling affordability/cost

In terms of business models and approaches aimed at tackling the affordability barrier – the Community Phone initiative (whereby local entrepreneurs share the cost of purchasing/renting mobile internet enabled devices to offer fee-based access to communities) and discounted tariff plans have been the most effective thus far. Aside from these approaches, the most scope for innovation remains in the sales, distribution and marketing channels.

It was also suggested that smart phone costs are already being driven down by market forces. In a context where building an industry consortium to agree a common feature set and bulk purchase of mobile devices for discount sale would take at least 12 months – the market is likely to deliver similar cost reductions on its own under current circumstances. It was also noted that while the cost of devices and mobile tariffs are a factor – issues surrounding access to electricity (and the cost of charging a phone) are also significant. According to research by the World Bank many users in emerging markets often have to decide between purchasing additional calories (food) and charging their mobile phones.

Business Women service case study

In August 2012 the Cherie Blair Foundation in partnership with Nokia launched the “Business Women” service – providing essential business tips to female entrepreneurs delivered via SMS to mobile phones within the Nokia Life platform. While initial signs suggest the project has been a success, a number of questions have also arisen.

  • What is the appropriate balance between scale and evidence?
  • How extensively should the impact and usability for female entrepreneurs be assessed before further roll out?
  • When is the product good enough?

It was suggested that there is a need to maintain iterative improvements to the platform supported by on-going feedback loops – as well as to integrate female entrepreneurs into the process of designing new products and applications. In Tanzania, Ghana and Rwanda Millicom are partnering with USAID to provide over 4,000 women with support and training to become mobile money agents with the objective of increasing female employment and financial inclusion. It was also noted that a deficit of women in managerial positions in the mobile industry is not just a developing world problem.


Scale versus evidence

On the subject of measuring impact versus up-scaling projects, it was argued that sometimes there is a trade-off between evidence collection and rolling out the benefits of a project quickly. On certain occasions there may be a case for rapidly up-scaling a project with demonstrable value in advance of an in-depth impact assessment. One example of this is DFID’s involvement/support for M-PESA in Kenya.

More resources on women, girls, and mobiles

There are also challenges surrounding processing the volume of evidence produced by some projects and zeroing in on those elements associated with development outcomes. One solution is to use mobile technology as means of collecting evidence electronically as opposed to paper based surveys which require more resources to administer and process.

On the topic of evidence collection, GSMA has built up an online repository of horizontal studies about the impact of mobile on development which includes a dedicated section on Women and Mobile impact pathways.

Why is gender differentiation important?

The question was posed – in what ways are women different from men in the context of mobile? Is a gender differentiated service really necessary? One response was that the focus should be on equality of opportunity. Access to mobile technology and services tends to be dominated by those groups who are already well represented in other existing social and economic spaces. There is a need to address this imbalance.

A mobile phone is a tool to access services, but there is a need to address the human aspects of the delivery infrastructure (such as through hiring female sales agents or marketing/branding mobile products and services in ways which are attractive to women). Mobile technology is gender neutral – although the different uses, structures and cultures associated with mobile technology may not always be neutral.

Gender balanced access to mobile technology has implications for ensuring equal access to opportunities for political discourse, economic empowerment and civil society participation which increase social inclusion. Education remains a key factor in overcoming barriers to female adoption of mobile technology.

The role of governments, green technology and language

Governments also have an important role to play in supporting the roll out of mobile network coverage – although in many instances universal service funds have not been properly administered. It was also pointed out that base station technology was initially designed to work alongside developed world electricity grids.

In many developing markets 80% of the cost of administering a mobile network originates from running diesel powered base stations. However, this issue is on its way to being solved with advances in solar powered and wind powered base stations (30,000 new green base stations will be connected in 2013).

In relation to the accessibility and provision of mobile services and applications in local languages – this is not necessarily expensive to deliver – but that functionality does need to be incorporated at the design stage for the platform/device. It was also stressed that one of the challenges with application design competitions is they need to build in more elements of long term sustainability as opposed to just incentivising people to chase a $30,000 prize.

More coordination/project flexibility?

It was contended that a key objective should be to successfully cross pollinate discussions surrounding access and use with development programmes seeking to promote examples of mobile usage. How can all the different pilot projects be more effectively coordinated? It is also important to leverage multiple communications channels including mobile, social networking (Facebook and Twitter) as well as radio broadcasts).

A further challenge exists in relation to promoting and marketing platforms as opposed to specific applications on a sector basis (e.g. business, agriculture, health). Information technology and mobile technology are horizontal services which naturally support the integration of multiple services. However, donors who are committed to a specific project aimed at health (for example) will not necessarily support the migration of that project into other related areas (such as financial inclusion).

Cultural barriers to access

In some instances women with access to mobile phones will share that access with a parent, guardian or husband, who may have the ability to confiscate or restrict access to that device. Sometimes the most effective way to communicate towards women is to contact their partners/husbands (e.g. sending maternal health SMS’s to men’s mobiles at a specific time in the afternoon when mobile generators arrive at the village allowing them to charge/switch on their phones – and pass them to their wives/partners).

The use of language can also have significant implications. According to research sponsored by VISA into mobile financial services, telling users to “put” money is more understood than asking them to “save” which does not appear to be a readily grasped concept.

Dematerialisation of communications and assets

Discussion turned to the issue of violence against women. Some were concerned that female empowerment can occasionally provoke physical repercussions from men. Others suggested that the dematerialisation of communications and assets fostered by mobile technology (in terms of less visible/monitored access to people, conversations, information and electronic payments) represents a clear trend towards the empowerment of women in traditional societies.

Closing comments

It was commented that the primary role of the mobile industry is in the provision of accessible infrastructure using affordable devices and data charges/tariffs. Once this is successfully achieved, it is predominantly the responsibility of other players to leverage that environment to take this process forward in the pursuit of wider societal and economic outcomes.

In a context where academic research has confirmed that natural disasters have a disproportionate impact in relation to female life expectancy (see London School of Economics study) mobile technology has the potential to play a part in reducing this imbalance through increasing awareness, communication and serving as an informal early warning system.

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