By Charity Troyer Moore and Rashi Sabherwal
This article first appeared in The Indian Express on December 27, 2017.

When we compare various measures of well-being across women and men in India, we quickly see many gaps that highlight how India’s women are being left behind. Recently, the widely covered release of the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index raised major concerns about life for women in India, which ranks near the bottom out of 144 countries on measures of women’s relative health and survival, and economic participation and opportunities. Alarmingly, its overall standing slid 21 places in the past year alone.

Amidst these growing gender gaps, our research team has been examining yet another gap: that of women’s mobile phone ownership and engagement. One might ask, in a world of limited time and resources, why should closing yet another gender gap be added to India’s list of policy priorities? And should the private sector focus on pulling women in as users of mobile technology?

Our work to date suggests these questions should be considered. At 46 per cent, India’s gender gap in mobile phone ownership is quite large compared to countries with similar levels of development and mobile costs. To understand this gap better, we conducted interviews and focus groups with 125 men and women across five sites in urban and rural India. We found that women are often only able to own a phone when a male family member buys her one, or passes along an old model after he buys a newer one.

The data show that the gender gap in access to any mobile phone, at 14 per cent, is much smaller than the gap in ownership. Yet this figure does not take into account the channels of patriarchy women must navigate whenever they want to borrow a male household member’s phone. For instance, Anita*, who lives in a community outside Kolkata, reported having to wait for her husband to go to sleep so that she could use the phone, which her husband keeps with him during the day.

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The graph also highlights that the gender gap is smaller for basic activities, like basic phone access, sending, and receiving calls. It is much larger for smartphone ownership (67 per cent), conducting a financial transaction (70 per cent), or using the Internet (72 per cent). Experts predict a fivefold increase in mobile data usage per smartphone through 2023. If women continue to access these high-value mobile activities at disproportionately lower levels, they risk missing out on the potential benefits of mobile engagement.

Just what are those benefits? Research has shown how mobile phones have helped job seekers connect to employment and producers obtain better prices for their goods. A variety of mobile-based platforms have also proven effective to encourage positive behaviors in areas as varied as health, education, and financial activities – notably savings. Some of the features afforded by mobile phones, such as mobile money, have had major transformative impacts for poor households and developing economies: one recent study of M-PESA, a mobile money platform in Kenya, determined that the platform has pulled 2 per cent of Kenyan households out of poverty through increasing households’ savings. It helped households cope with negative shocks, and particularly benefited female-headed households, who were able to transition from agriculture into self-employment.

The mobile phone gender gap: Why does it matter and what can we do?

One exciting possibility is that services enabled through mobile data could help women close other gender gaps. Take female labor force participation, where India lags behind others in the region such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. According to the most recent National Sample Survey employment data, only 27 per cent of Indian women age 15 – 70 not enrolled in school participate in the labor force, compared to 96 per cent of men. Yet over 30 per cent of women who report they are primarily occupied with domestic duties – and therefore counted out of the labor force – say they would take a job if it were offered to them, and nearly three-quarters of these women report wanting regular, part-time work. Women also report needing better skills to engage in paid work. These statistics suggest women need flexible options to access labor markets and training opportunities, something that mobile enables like never before.

Mobile phones could help unemployed women learn about jobs or flexible income generation opportunities. They could enable women to participate in digital training that fits into their schedules while allowing them to continue with household and caregiving responsibilities. In cases where women are restricted from moving outside their neighborhoods or villages, mobiles could enable them to conduct financial transactions, access government transfers, or connect with potential buyers of their products directly from their homes.

Just placing phones in women’s hands may not be a panacea, however. In our interviews across India, we found that many women – particularly those who are married and busy taking care of their homes and families – did not fully understand how mobile phones could connect them to the larger world and provide them with opportunities to earn money. It may be necessary to show these women how mobile can help meet their households’ needs and expand their own economic engagement before they push to get their hands on one.

Unsurprisingly, women also report relying on family members, particularly adult males and youth, to help them navigate mobile technology. Programs like Google’s Internet Saathi, which train local women to teach other women how to engage effectively with mobile technology, could both empower and equip women in rural areas to access and navigate value-added services effectively.

We know that mobile phones can increase a household’s earning potential, but we know very little about the specific impact of women’s mobile engagement on their well-being and their communities. Our team’s research over the next two years will examine this question, helping to answer whether the mobile gender gap is, in and of itself, a worthwhile policy goal.

*Name changed to protect privacy