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Striving for a balanced mobile world: the Connected Women of MWC

At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the GSMA’s Connected Women initiative began a new drive to connect more women in the developing world. Computer Weekly meets programme director Claire Sibthorpe

Mobile is everywhere. That, of course, is not in dispute any longer – but did you know that 1.7 billion women in low- and middle-income countries still do not own a mobile phone, and that women on average are 14% less likely to own a mobile device than men?

This is a big problem. It is holding back economic development and perpetuating gender inequality around the world.

The GSM Association’s (GSMA) Connected Women project exists to help get mobile devices and services into the hands of women in emerging economies across the world. It has already helped 15 million women globally, but at this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) it went further still, announcing a renewed commitment with a number of operators in emerging economies.

Claire Sibthorpe, director of the Connected Women programme, has well over 15 years’ experience in public and international development, social policy and service delivery, with a particular focus on IT and mobile.

Along the way, she has worked as a senior consultant at Atos KPMG Consulting, where she managed a programme to improve access to IT in Africa, and at the International Development Research Centre on initiatives aimed at empowering communities to apply technology to socioeconomic development.

At the GSMA, she plays a leading role in addressing some of the many and variable challenges that women face when accessing mobile technology in the developing world.

“Obviously, the challenges are all very context-specific, and it very much depends on the market you are in as to what social or cultural norms you have to tackle,” Sibthorpe tells Computer Weekly over coffee on the GSMA’s crowded stand.

“Some of the things some of our partners are doing are, for example, recruiting more women as sales agents to make it easier for women to get access to products. They are also looking at the issue of training, particularly when you come to more advanced services, such as mobile broadband and mobile money.

“Other things we are exploring are safe and secure ways for women to top up their phones. In some markets, it can be a challenge for women to go into a very male-dominated shop to top up, and when they do, if the man knows that a particular phone is owned by a women, she may receive harassing calls and texts.”

Mobile payments and the gender gap

One of the hottest use cases for mobile right now is mobile payments and financial services, a trend that is as keenly felt in poorer countries as it is in affluent ones, and one that women are disproportionately less likely to take advantage of.

According to Sibthorpe, there are currently about 2 billion people in the world who are “unbanked”, which means they have no access to banking facilities of any kind. Many of these people are women, and it is hard for banks to reach them in a traditional way.

Because installing ATMs and opening branches is far more costly to the financial services industry than rolling out a website, the mobile phone is becoming the primary vehicle to extend access to financial services across the developing world, she says.

“For women who are financially excluded, the phone is a cost-effective tool to get them access not just to banking, but peer-to-peer payments, other mobile products, savings accounts, even loans,” she adds.

Mature market in Kenya

Kenya is one of the Connected Women programme’s targeted markets. It has one of the most mature mobile money markets in the world, having launched an M-PESA service in 2007, and over 58% of Kenyan adults now use the service at least once a month.

Based on frequency of use, the GSMA has found there is little difference between how men and women used mobile money services in Kenya.

But when it comes to using mobile money to top up airtime, and receiving and sending mobile money, more men than women are using such services. In the case of sending money, 53% of men say they have done it in the past seven days, compared to just 39% of women.

“Because women are more price-sensitive and have less income, we found some nervousness from them to try these things in case they lost money,” says Sibthorpe. “Men will try something out and not even know what the cost is. Women will be able to tell you right away what it costs.

“What we also see in our research again and again is that women want a secure place to keep their money, they want something they have control over, and mobile offers that tool.

“This is where I think ownership of phones is so important. We often talk about access versus ownership, but if you have shared access to a phone, it makes it challenging for things like financial services because your husband can get access to your money, so we must now really drive individual ownership.”

Marketing to women

Women are also much less likely to be aware of new mobile payment services when these became available, says the GSMA. Indeed, says Sibthorpe, mass above the line (ATL) marketing tends to be better at reaching men than women.

“In our research in Kenya, we found that men see a marketing campaign and want to try out the product, but women are less likely to do that,” she says.

“But when women met other people who could show them, physically, how to use the phone and the service, that was more effective.”

“Women want a secure place to keep their money, they want something they have control over, and mobile offers that tool

Claire Sibthorpe, GSMA Connected Women

Because of this, many the operators that signed up to the Connected Women Commitment Initiative at MWC – including Dialog Axiata in Sri Lanka, Digi Telecommunications in Malaysia, Indosat Ooredoo in Indonesia, Ooredoo Maldives, Ooredoo Myanmar, Robi Axiata in Bangladesh, Tigo in Rwanda and Turkcell in Turkey – are hiring more women to go out into the field and act as resell agents and instructors.

“They hire women in the community to sell it to women, and this is often the first time these women [the resellers] have any kind of livelihood opportunity,” says Sibthorpe.

“Some of the women are using the money they make from reselling this product to put their girls through school, so not only are they getting the benefit of having phone access for the first time, but women reselling are making a living and using that to benefit their families.

“This is a win-win for everybody – it benefits women, it benefits operators, it benefits society.”

What about the men?

It is something of an anathema in many conversations about feminism in the western world to ask the question: “But what about the men?”

Narratives of male privilege show that because men do not live the same experience as women – for example, they do not have to worry about being sexually harassed on public transport – their opinions on feminism are less important than those of women. In a nutshell, men should be quiet for once, and listen.

In the West, this narrative can be more easily justified. But in the developing world, where the patriarchy is much more deeply hard-wired into many societies, there is simply no way to advance towards even a basic idea of women’s rights without securing buy-in from men.

Women banned from owning phones

This also holds true when it comes to mobile communications. Sibthorpe says that in India, she has found a number of villages where men have actually banned single women from owning mobile phones. It is just as important for such opinions to be changed as it is for women themselves to be educated, she says.

“Men are often the decision-makers on tech and also will frequently not be comfortable with their wives having a phone,” says Sibthorpe.

“We see also in our research that women get a lot of harassing calls from men and in our focus groups we hear men say they feel that women are the willing recipients of these calls, that they are inviting men to call them and this makes them nervous about their wives having phones. They think they’re dangerous.

“You have to influence the decision-makers. You have to target them. If you don’t, you’re never going to get anywhere.”

Read more about IT in international development

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In India, the GSMA’s operator partner trialled a number of solutions, including a dual-SIM product, whereby one SIM went to the man and one to the woman. When the women topped up their SIMs, the operator undertook to match the sum topped up to the linked SIM.

This may seem like a loss-making venture for the operator – although the sums involved are in the region of 30 rupees, about 30 pence – but the payback is substantial, says Sibthorpe.

“When women start to use these services and are shown how to use them and feel comfortable, actually they are more loyal users than men,” she says. “Obviously, we try not to generalise, but they do stick with products and services; they don’t shop around or switch their SIMs. I’m not sure why – we just see it in the data.”

So, with this in mind, it is in the interests of operators to reach out to women as well, and many are doing so, including operators that recently signed up to extend the Connected Women initiative.

Once this happens, says Sibthorpe, there is also clear evidence of wider social benefits being realised quickly. Over time, the women studied in India maintained access to their phones – suggesting that their husbands soon caught on, presumably once the money showed up in their bank accounts.

Targeted efforts

The road ahead is a long and difficult one, says Sibthorpe, who acknowledges that the gender gap is very unlikely to close on its own.

She calls for policymakers, data scientists, researchers and mobile operators to think of women as a specific customer segment in the mobile world, and focus on targeting them.

“If there is not an explicit focus on women, they do get left behind,” she says. “People used to think that as mobile costs went down, these gaps would close themselves.

“But because technology sits within wider social constructs, unless there is targeted intervention, that does not happen. One would hope that these things can be included as a focus, rather than an afterthought.”

This was first published in March 2016

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