Mobile internet gender gap lessens

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 16 May 2024
66% of women in low- and middle-income countries now use mobile internet.
66% of women in low- and middle-income countries now use mobile internet.

Women in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) are increasingly adopting mobile internet much faster than men, after stalling amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

So says Claire Sibthorpe, head of digital inclusion in the mobile for development team at the GSM Association (GSMA), commenting on the findings of The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2024.

Compiled by the GSMA, the report shows more women in LMICs are using mobile internet than ever before, at 1.5 billion (66%) in total. In 2023, an additional 120 million women connected to the internet via mobile.

Despite this, the research found 785 million women remain unconnected, with around 60% residing in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

According to the GMSA, the gender gap in mobile internet adoption across these countries narrowed for the first time since 2020. Additionally, the smartphone gender gap narrowed slightly to 13%, but the gender gap in overall mobile ownership remains unchanged at 8%.

The industry body notes that mobile remains the primary – and often only – way people in LMICs access the internet, accounting for 84% of broadband connections in 2023.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s mobile internet usage from 2017 to 2023.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s mobile internet usage from 2017 to 2023.

In an interview with ITWeb, Sibthorpe says it’s pleasing to see the gender gap is narrowing once again.

“Between 2017 and 2020, the mobile internet gender gap narrowed substantially. But in 2021 and 2022, progress stalled and for two years in a row, women’s digital inclusion in LMICs had slowed,” she states.

“This was very concerning and highlighted that women were disproportionately negatively impacted by the economic crisis that occurred in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our latest data shows the mobile internet gender gap narrowed from 19% in 2022 to 15% in 2023, due to women adopting mobile internet at a faster rate than men. This brings us back to where we were in 2020.”

While the mobile internet gap among women across LMICs has lessened, women in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are still the least likely to use mobile internet compared to men, with gender gaps of 31% and 32%, respectively.

According to Sibthorpe, this means there is still a substantial mobile internet gender gap and more to be done to ensure women are not being left behind in an increasingly digital world.

“It will be also important to continue to track this to see whether women’s rate of mobile internet adoption will continue to increase, and the mobile internet gender gap will continue to narrow.”

This year marks the seventh edition of the annual report, which is based on 13 600 face-to-face surveys across 12 LMICs in South Asia, Middle East, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Across LMICs, 1.4 billion women own a smartphone, meaning 60% of women now have a smartphone device.

In 2023, the smartphone gender gap narrowed slightly from 15% to 13% across LMICs, driven primarily by women in South Asia.

However, there are still 940 million (40%) women in LMICs who do not own a smartphone.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s mobile ownership from 2017 to 2023.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s mobile ownership from 2017 to 2023.

In surveyed countries, the research reveals the top barriers to mobile ownership for women and men are affordability (primarily of handsets), literacy and digital skills, says Sibthorpe.

“Millions more women than men face these barriers because they are offline. Women also tend to experience these barriers more acutely due to social norms and structural inequalities, such as lower education and income.”

The report highlights that beyond initial adoption, barriers to usage vary more by country than by gender, encompassing issues such as safety and security concerns, affordability (concerning data) and connectivity experience.

“Although barriers to mobile adoption and use are primarily shaped by country rather than gender, women lag behind men in advancing through the mobile internet user journey. This discrepancy partly arises from women facing more acute barriers, driven by social norms and structural inequalities, such as unequal access to education and income.”

Sibthorpe explains that in regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, mobile phones are often the only way that most people access the internet, particularly women.

“Mobile phones empower women, making them feel more connected, autonomous and safer, and providing access to information and services.

“In our research across 12 LMICs, most women who use mobile internet said they use it every day and that it positively impacts their lives. We live in an increasingly connected world and it is important we are not leaving women behind. By addressing this gender gap, we can realise the significant benefit mobile internet provides to women, their families and economies.”

Sibthorpe points out that addressing the mobile gender gap provides significant social and commercial benefits to individuals, societies and economies.

These gender gaps are driven by a complex set of social, economic and cultural factors that cannot be addressed by one organisation alone, she adds.

“Mobile phones and mobile internet enable women to stay connected to each other and access information and services from anywhere, including healthcare, education, e-commerce, financial services and income-generating opportunities.

“GSMA analysis has estimated that closing the gender gap in mobile ownership and use in LMICs over an eight-year period could deliver billions in GDP growth, as well as $230 billion in additional revenue to the mobile industry.

“Further action is required by policymakers, industry, the development community and other stakeholders working together to better measure, understand and address women’s needs and the barriers they face.”