Excerpts from “A Tough Call: Understanding barriers to and impacts of women’s mobile phone adoption in India”, by Giorgia Barboni, Erica Field, Rohini Pande, Natalia Rigol, Simone Schaner, and Charity Troyer Moore, published by Harvard Kennedy School:
Today in India, 71% of men own mobile phones, but only 38% of women do. South Asian countries in general are clear outliers among countries of similar levels of development, with India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh exhibiting some of the world’s highest gender gaps in access to technology. While the mobile gender gap matters in its own right, it is particularly problematic because it can exacerbate other important forms of inequality — in earnings, networking opportunities, and access to information.
This report uses a range of sources — 125 original qualitative interviews, a literature review, and analysis of secondary quantitative data — to identify leading barriers to Indian women’s use of mobile phones, assess the importance of these barriers, and propose directions for further research into how to reduce them. Throughout the report, we examine two broad, intersecting classes of barriers: economic and normative.
Economic barriers refer to factors directly related to the financial and human capital needed to own and operate mobile phones, as well as the economic “pull factors” that increase use, such as needing a phone for work. Normative barriers include the social norms, customs, and individual beliefs that shape and constrain men’s and women’s roles in the household and society.
Men are 33 percentage points more likely to own a phone than women, on average. The mobile gap exists across Indian society. We disaggregate data by a range of demographic characteristics including age group, state of residence, marital status, educational attainment, urbanicity, and poverty status. While there is substantial variation in the gap, it is always 10 percentage points or higher.
A woman’s level of empowerment is as important a determinate of mobile use as her income. We used survey data to create a women’s “empowerment” ranking, and asked whether this ranking or household income is a better predictor of the mobile gender gap, holding other background characteristics constant. Income and empowerment have similar explanatory power, which suggests normative and economic barriers are both important drivers of the mobile gender gap.
Women’s mobile phone usage challenges traditional gender norms. Interviews reveal that phone usage can stir questions about girls’ “purity” prior to marriage and worries that women will be subject to digital harassment as reported in the media. After marriage, norms dictate that a woman’s primary responsibility is to take care of her family and household. This home-centric role leaves women with few opportunities to use the phone for socially-acceptable, “productive” purposes.
47% of the women who access a phone are phone borrowers rather than owners, as compared to 16% of men. For obvious reasons, borrowing a phone rather than owning one imposes practical limitations on diversification and independence. Moreover, results from our qualitative work suggest that diversification and independence constraints are especially binding given most women borrow from their husbands. 52% of female phone borrowers report borrowing their phone from their husband, while male borrowers are most likely to access a phone through their children.
Women lag behind men with relative gaps growing with task sophistication: while the relative gap is between 15–20% for making and receiving calls, the gender gap jumps to 51% for a feature as simple as SMS and remains above 60% for other more complex activities such as social media. Why does the gender gap grow with task complexity? Our qualitative discussions with phone users offer several potential explanations. Some women felt that they did not have the technical ability to perform complex tasks, or that they did not see a need to perform certain tasks (social media and YouTube, for example, were often seen as wasting time and a distraction from more pressing responsibilities).
However, complex tasks were not just seen as a waste of time, they were also described in terms of propriety and decency vis-à-vis normative prescriptions of gender roles. In one respondent’s words, whether or not a phone activity is “good or bad depends on the way we are using our phone.”
We find that there are three dimensions along which communities classify these activities as proper or improper, which could drive the gradient in Figure 6. Purpose and Duration of Use. Our findings indicate that purpose of phone use and duration of phone use are gendered in the Indian context, with rules and expectations applying differently for females and males. Several respondents suggested that women should limit the amount of time they spend on their phones as well as limit their conversations to their specific needs.
Even in our more conservative samples, it was considered appropriate to talk if the matter was urgent, related to work/school, and was limited to this specific purpose. Talking to family, using phones during a commute, using phones to discuss work or studies were thus considered appropriate uses of mobile phones for women. Importantly, these parameters seemed to be set and enforced by the community.
For instance, if a girl chatted on the phone with a boy for a long period of time or in a light-hearted manner, the community might become suspicious that they will develop a relationship. Location of Use. Across our sample, women were encouraged to use their phones inside the house. Especially in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, there was a strong preference for women to use their phones inside the house as a measure to avoid community suspicion about what they were using their phones for.
This is true even if they were speaking with their family members or if they had a good reputation: “If she is on the phone [for 1-2 hours], then people will wonder what she is doing, and that reflects on her character. If she is not that type, then also they will think like this.” At the same time, we found a strong preference for women using their phones in front of family members while within the household. In a focus group discussion with college students in Maharashtra, for example, respondents suggested that women had to share their passcodes and could not hide their phones from their families. This suggests a preference for women’s use to be supervised, and at the same time, not public.
In our discussions of social media, women expressed a strong preference for relationshipdriven services like WhatsApp, instead of more open access services like Facebook, which open women up to being contacted by a network of friends-of-friends and strangers. For this reason, most female respondents who owned a smart phone were active WhatsApp users, but did not use or upload pictures onto Facebook.
A 20-year-old respondent from West Bengal expressed her preference for WhatsApp over Facebook because: “many unknown people send friend requests on Facebook; they post bad comments on my post [and] send bad photos. That doesn’t happen with WhatsApp.” A young, married female respondent from Madhya Pradesh justified her use of Facebook by telling us that she is only friends with some of her relatives — when we asked her if she has added her childhood friends, she said “I have children, and a family. If I talk to [my childhood friends,] there may be an unnecessary argument in the family.”
These fears were echoed by older respondents, who also pointed out that the access to inappropriate content on social media creates an unsafe environment for young female users who must be careful that their phone use doesn’t harm their reputation or purity. For instance, an older female respondent from West Bengal claimed that “everyone is using Facebook” but not everyone is “doing bad things.”
Nevertheless, the environment exposes women to others’ inappropriate actions: “they will watch all those dirty photos.” This discussion suggests that normative barriers may be especially important for limiting women’s mobile use conditional on technical ability or other economic barriers such as cost.
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