Interview: Claire Sibthorpe

The GSM Association’s head of connected women, connected society, and assistive technology discusses the impact mobile devices have had on the lives of marginalized women and what technology companies can do to further mobile equity.
Part of
Issue 18 August 2021


Claire Sibthorpe is the head of connected women, connected society, and assistive technology at the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA), which comprises more than 750 mobile network operators and over 400 companies in the broader mobile ecosystem. In 2020, the organization’s Mobile Gender Gap Report outlined the persistent gender gap in mobile use across low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), finding that women in these regions are 8 percent less likely to own a mobile device than men and 20 percent less likely to use the mobile internet. The GSMA considers bridging the mobile gender gap vital to preserving the livelihoods of marginalized women, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, as it enables access to critical financial services, health information, and education, as well as opportunities to grow small businesses.

Increment spoke with Sibthorpe about the impact mobile devices have had on the lives of women in LMICs, the barriers to their use, and the actions technology companies can take to promote mobile equity today.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Increment: The gender gap in mobile ownership has remained largely unchanged in the past few years, with 165 million fewer women than men in LMICs owning their own device. What makes the women who are still unconnected so hard to reach?

Claire Sibthorpe: It’s important to first highlight the scale of the reach of mobile. We reported last year that 82 percent of women across LMICs now own a mobile phone, which is an incredible figure. Mobile is also the primary way most people around the world access the internet; over half of women in LMICs now use mobile internet. But as you highlight, the gender gap in mobile ownership has remained largely unchanged since 2017. The unconnected are disproportionately rural, female, and less educated. An analysis of recent GSMA data has shown that there would still be a mobile gender gap in Africa and Asia even if women had the same levels of education, income, literacy, and employment as men. This suggests that other issues that are hard to measure, such as discrimination and social norms, are at play. The mobile gender gap is driven by social, economic, and cultural factors, which result in women experiencing barriers to mobile ownership and use. To close the mobile gender gap, we need to address these issues and focus on access, affordability, knowledge and digital skills, safety and security, and [perceived] relevance [of the internet]. 

The 2020 Mobile Gender Gap Report finds that 300 million fewer women than men access the internet on mobile devices. Could you walk us through a woman’s typical journey from the purchase of a mobile device to mobile internet use? 

Acquiring, using, and learning about mobile services isn’t necessarily a linear process, but we use a simple framework to understand the mobile internet user journey. It starts with mobile ownership. Handset affordability is the primary barrier to mobile phone ownership for both men and women. 

Then it moves on to awareness of mobile internet. In markets with the widest gender gaps in mobile internet use, this is the stage at which a large proportion of users often end their journey. However, awareness of mobile internet has increased substantially across all surveyed countries since 2017, with both men and women increasingly seeing the internet as relevant to their lives. 

Next is mobile internet adoption. Among mobile users who are aware of mobile internet, a lack of literacy and digital skills is the main barrier to use, followed by affordability. 

The final stage is regular mobile internet use, which can encompass a very wide range of different services. The gender gap typically widens along each stage of this user journey. 

It’s also important to consider how the type of mobile device impacts the use of the internet. Although it’s possible to access the internet on a feature phone [which is internet-enabled but doesn’t allow users to download apps], internet use is typically much richer, more regular, and more varied on a smartphone. Smartphone owners are much more likely to progress through the other stages. 

The report mentions that to address these persistent gender gaps, all players in the mobile ecosystem must work together. How can technology companies work with other stakeholders to design or promote mobile experiences for women in underdeveloped communities?

The report provides recommendations for four types of organizations: mobile network operators (MNOs), internet companies, policy makers and regulators, and the development community. The actions of these stakeholders will be most effective if they’re coordinated and grounded in an understanding of the country-level barriers to mobile ownership and internet use affecting a disproportionate number of women in LMICs. Technology companies, for example, can partner with MNOs to address handset affordability through subsidies for low-cost smartphones that can help trigger mobile internet adoption, or by making “data-light” versions of applications to reduce the cost for more price-sensitive users.

Women tend to use a less diverse range of mobile internet applications than men, and engage with lower frequency in complex internet-based activities such as watching video content. What are the reasons for this discrepancy?

This can be attributed in part to the barriers women face to access and use of mobile services. For example, globally, a higher proportion of women are illiterate and/or have experienced lower levels of education than men. Women with such disadvantages often lack, or believe they lack, the digital skills and confidence needed to use a mobile device, leading them to fail to gain access or restricting their use to a limited number of services and applications. Lack of digital and financial literacy can be compounded by interfaces that aren’t consumer-friendly, further preventing women from using these services.

As you mentioned, literacy and digital skills remain a major barrier to mobile internet use across LMICs. What can technologists do to promote usability among women for whom a mobile device may be their first experience with technology or the internet?

There are many actions stakeholders can take to help address this barrier. For example, mobile operators and the development community can use trusted local networks or agents to deliver digital skills training to women using the GSMA’s Mobile Internet Skills Training Toolkit. Internet companies can ensure mobile apps and operating systems are user-friendly for those who are less confident and literate, for example by having clear user menus with fewer steps, simplified content and terminology, and shortened sign-up processes. 

Policy makers can invest in public education and digital literacy initiatives that increase women and girls’ digital literacy and confidence. They can also ensure online government services are developed to consider the needs and capabilities of individuals with lower literacy and digital skills, for example by providing an interactive voice response helpline or using local language on interfaces, as well as icons, symbols, pictures, videos, and comics-style stories in addition to, or instead of, text.

Safety and security are increasingly important concerns for all first-time mobile users in LMICs. How might technology companies help address these concerns?

Safety and harassment fears are significant barriers that inhibit women from benefiting from or even wanting to use a mobile. Physical concerns include vulnerability to theft and domestic violence associated with phone use, for example when use of a mobile phone is considered to be “wasting time” or a means for inappropriate contact with men. Once online, women may fear  intimidation, harassment, violence, fraud, surveillance, identity theft, misuse of personal images and data, exposure to explicit content, and more. 

However, many women feel mobile ownership and access to mobile services can enhance their personal security. A good example of how safety considerations have been addressed by mobile operators can be found in Vodafone Idea’s Sakhi service. Sakhi includes a system to alert contacts at the touch of a button in case of emergency, emergency credit [that enables 10 minutes of free calling], and a means to privately top up an account balance without having to reveal personal phone numbers to agents at retail outlets, who are usually men. Since its launch in October 2018, it has already been adopted by millions of women, making a significant contribution to their well-being. 

Mobile devices are particularly powerful when they can provide women access to organized financial and banking services. What’s the relationship between mobile devices and financial inclusion for women?

Mobile money can help reduce the gender gap in financial inclusion. In LMICs, women are on average 33 percent less likely to use mobile money than men. However, in many of these countries, there’s less of a gender gap among users of mobile money [compared to] users of traditional financial services. In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, men are twice as likely as women to have an account with a financial institution, but women are just as likely as men to have only a mobile money account. In Senegal, as much as 59 percent of women who are financially included own only a mobile money account.

By playing a vital role in improving gender equality in social, economic, and political dimensions, mobile technology benefits not only women themselves, but also their communities, businesses, and the broader economy. [The GSMA estimates that] closing the gender gap in mobile internet use across LMICs could add $700 billion USD in GDP growth over five years. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed an economic crisis that, according to a September 2020 UN report, threatens to push an estimated 47 million women into chronic poverty, undoing the developmental progress of the previous decades. What role is mobile playing in women’s lives during these crises?

As the primary way most individuals in LMICs access the internet, mobile is proving to be a vital tool for sharing information about the pandemic, supporting livelihoods, and enabling remote access to critical services such as health care and education. Gender considerations are paramount in this context. Women tend to be responsible for the vast majority of care work for children, the elderly, and the sick in the home, and often run informal micro-businesses from domestic settings. Yet women have less access than men to mobile technology, which is why connecting more women and helping them reap the benefits of mobile technology is more important than ever to improve their well-being and that of their families and society as a whole. 

What recommendations do you have for immediate or near-term ways technology companies can address the mobile gender gap in response to the current crises?

The mobile industry, governments, multilateral institutions, and the development community should accelerate their efforts to address the mobile gender gap [by doing the following]: First, they should focus on gender equality and reaching women at an organizational and policy level through senior leaders championing the issue and setting specific gender equity targets. Second, they should further their understanding of the mobile gender gap by improving the quality and availability of gender-disaggregated data, as well as understanding women’s needs and the barriers they face to mobile ownership and use. Third, they should explicitly address women’s needs, circumstances, and challenges in the design and implementation of mobile-related products, services, interventions, and policies. Lastly, they should collaborate and partner with different stakeholders to address the mobile gender gap.

If governments, businesses, and other stakeholders don’t proactively consider reaching women and meeting their needs and aspirations, they’re likely to inadvertently maintain or further entrench the mobile gender gap. Furthermore, the root causes of the mobile gender gap are complex, diverse, and interrelated, and cannot be addressed by one organization alone. Targeted intervention is needed from industry, policy makers, the development community, and other stakeholders to ensure women are no longer left behind.

About the author

Ipsita Agarwal is a narrative nonfiction writer and engineer whose debut book will be published by Trapeze. She has written for publications including Wired and Smithsonian and is a contributing editor for Stripe Press.


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