A just-released Harvard Kennedy School study has estimated that, today in India, 71% of men use mobile phones, as against 38% of women, pointing out that India, along with Pakistan and Bangladesh, are “clear outliers among countries of similar levels of development”, exhibiting “some of the world’s highest gender gaps in access to technology”.
The study provides a comparative graph which suggests that, while Pakistan and Bangladesh “outstrips” India in gender gap in mobile ownership, the only country outside the South Asian region, where the gap is even higher, is Uganda.
The study, “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, insists, “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.”
Pointing out that “men are 33 percentage points more likely to own a phone than women, on average”, the study, based on disaggregation of data by a range of demographic characteristics, including age group, state of residence, marital status, educational attainment, urbanicity, and poverty status, says, “The mobile gap exists across Indian society. While there is substantial variation in the gap, it is always 10 percentage points or higher.”
The study believes, “Women’s mobile phone usage challenges traditional gender norms”, adding, its 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”, the study adds, “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.”
Claiming to have analyzed the sample 45,000 mobile phone users, the study 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.
Stating that 47% of the women who access a phone in its sample “are phone borrowers rather than owners, as compared to 16% of men”, the study says, “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.”
The study says, “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.”
During interviews, the study says, “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”, it underscores, “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’.”
Pointing out 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”, the study says, “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.”
“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”, the study says, adding, “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.”
“Across our sample, women were encouraged to use their phones inside the house”, the study says, adding, “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.”
“At the same time, we found a strong preference for women using their phones in front of family members while within the household”, the study says, adding, “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.”
The study also found, “In our discussions of social media, women expressed a strong preference for relationship-driven 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.”