An estimated 112 million more women started using mobile Internet for the first time last year across low- and middle-income countries (LMIC), says the 2021 GSMA Mobile Gender Gap Report.
However, there are still 74 million unconnected women in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Women are also still less likely to own a mobile phone compared to men in the region.
Findings from the report are based on results from more than 9,000 face-to-face surveys across eight low and middle-income countries, and subsequent modeling and analysis of the data.
The survey shows that the mobile ownership rate for women in SSA was 75 percent in 2020, compared to 82 percent in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region.
Some 234 million fewer women than men access mobile Internet, underscoring how the gender gap in mobile ownership is proving difficult to close.
The research notes that affordability, lack of literacy and digital skills, and lower awareness of mobile Internet have been common barriers for women in joining the digital economy.
There has, however, been some improvement, with the global mobile gender gap actually shrinking over the past year, to 15 percent from 19 percent in 2019.
The improvement was mostly because of a record number of women in South Asia now using mobile Internet services, but unfortunately the same cannot be said for Sub-Saharan Africa where things actually got worse over the past year.
Global gender gap
But women in SSA are 37 percent less likely to use mobile Internet compared to men, slightly worse than 36 percent in 2019, making it the region with the largest mobile gender gap globally.
Structural inequalities in society and discriminative social norms also remain a challenge. Even when women have the same levels of education, income, literacy, and employment as men, they are still less likely to own a mobile phone or use mobile Internet.
Women were more likely than men to access the Internet exclusively via mobile in almost all markets surveyed, but affordability remains a huge barrier in SSA where it has risen to be the top hurdle for men and the second most pressing challenge for women.
"In Kenya, 63 percent of male Internet users said they only used the Internet via a mobile device compared to 79 percent of females," the report states. The GSMA said this reliance by women on mobile demonstrates the disproportionate benefit of increasing their access.
Additionally, 38 percent of Kenyan men and 33 percent of women who are aware of mobile Internet, but have not used it, cited affordability as the single biggest barrier to adoption.
"If women are to become equal citizens in a more digital, post-Covid-19 world, closing the mobile gender gap has never been more critical," said Mats Granryd, director-general of the GSMA.
"I urge policymakers, the private sector, and the international community to take note of the important findings laid out in the Mobile Gender Gap Report because only concerted action and collaboration will enable women and their families to reap the full benefits of connectivity," Granryd added.
For the first time since 2017, the gender gap in smartphone ownership reduced across LMICs. In 2019, women were 20 percent less likely to own a smartphone, but this dropped to 15 percent in 2020.
Mobile owners are using their phones for a wider range of activities, with notable increases in the use of mobile Internet for video calls, listening to music and watching videos.
However, the study notes, there is a persistent gender gap, with female mobile owners using a narrower range of mobile services than male owners.
"Encouragingly, across the countries surveyed, female smartphone owners are almost at par with male owners in terms of mobile Internet adoption and the range of mobile services they use."
In general, countries with the lowest levels of mobile ownership have the widest gender gaps in mobile ownership and mobile Internet use.
In all countries surveyed, the report shows, the gender gap in mobile ownership is smaller than the gender gap in mobile Internet use.
"Even where the gender gap in mobile ownership is relatively small, there can be a substantial gender gap in mobile Internet use. For instance, Kenya and Nigeria have gender gaps in mobile ownership of seven percent and four percent, respectively, and gender gaps in mobile Internet use of 42 percent and 29 percent," says the report.
Encouragingly, the Covid-19 pandemic does not appear to have led to an overall decline in mobile ownership among women, at least so far.
Although women were more likely to have lost their jobs and experienced more financial strain from reverse migration in some markets, 18 mobile ownership among women remained largely unchanged in 2020.
In contrast, in Kenya, Nigeria and Mozambique, there is some evidence that women's mobile ownership, particularly smartphone ownership, was negatively impacted over the last year compared to men's.
Anecdotal evidence obtained while conducting the survey indicates that some men and women in certain surveyed countries sold their handsets to cope with financial stress.