How Is Technology Widening the Gender Gap in Poorer Countries?

(Reuters) The Internet and mobile phones have transformed our connections to people around the world. This technology has also, however, led to a widening gender gap in poorer countries. For it is largely men who control the information revolution that helps to educate, inform and empower.

In low and middle-income countries, a woman is 21 percent less likely than a man to own a mobile phone, according to research done by GSMA. In Africa, women are 23 percent less likely than a man to own a cell phone. In the Middle East the figure is 24 percent and in South Asia, 37 percent,

The factors driving women’s lack of connectivity vary from community to community. But the end result is always the same: disempowerment.

Women are not just missing out on educational and economic opportunities because they don’t own mobile phones. They are losing a voice.

This disturbing finding is highlighted by the United Nations/Overseas Development Institute-ledMY World survey, a major, inclusive global poll. Respondents were asked to rank their priorities — including political freedoms, better healthcare, protection from violence and crime — in making the world better. They could vote paper, online or by mobile phone. The results will help world leaders as they deliberate on the post-2015 global development agenda this week, during the conference of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women.

The survey has already gathered 1.5 million votes. Women are just as keen as men to have their views heard — engagement offline is a 50-50 split between women and men; online women have voted more than men, with a 52-48 split.

But mobile voting has told a different story. The difference in response rates between the sexes is stark. Of the roughly 380,000 respondents who took the survey via mobile, only 25 percent were women. Consider Yemen, where 121,000 people voted on their mobile phones. Of those, 81,000 were men.

Overall, women respondents picked education, healthcare and better job opportunities as their top priorities in making the world better. But if you saw only the mobile vote, their views would have been diluted because men dominated.

If women owned mobile phones in equal numbers, their access to education, healthcare and better jobs would indeed be improved.

Getting more mobile phones into the hands of women in low- and middle-income countries will not be easy because the reasons behind their lack of ownership are so varied. But there are some solutions.

Women in these countries typically cite three key barriers: mobile phones are too expensive, the monthly bills are too high or there is no urgent need to own one.

Governments should help lower these barriers. They should set up transparent regulatory systems that would encourage more mobile phone providers to enter the market. More competition means lower prices and more affordable plans.

In addition, governments should ensure that women have access to microfinance plans to help purchase phones. They should strive to make equal access to mobile connectivity part of their development plans.

Governments should also subsidize computer and smartphone ownership for low-income people.

A mobile phone can bring benefits to women, and many of these we in the West take for granted: personal safety, reliable connection to friends and family and access to commerce and job opportunities.

Most important for a world dominated by Facebook and Twitter and e-polls, a mobile phone gives women a voice.