Saturday, 24 September 2011

Women: an untapped mobile opportunity and engine for economic growth

I was watching World Bank President Robert Zoellick give his annual assessment of the global economic situation the other day. I'll skate over the gloomy economic picture that he was painting for now, although it is relevant. One thing he mentioned was that there was effectively a massive emerging market in the world that can be an engine for economic growth: women. What he was saying made a lot of sense. I won't go into it in detail. I'm sure you can google it.

However, for my purposes the interesting thing was thinking about mobile penetration. OK so nominally just about every country has a 100% mobile penetration but we all know that's hogwash. Not everyone in the world has a phone. Multiple SIM ownership is widespread for cheaper off-net calling, there's a lag in ceasing counting old SIMs that have stopped being used, and there is a lot of multiple ownership due to business/consumer use, mobile broadband etc. From a personal standpoint, I suspect I'm still counted as 2 Indian mobile phone subscribers.

So I began wondering what the likelihood was that mobile penetration of women was lower than men and I suspect there's a strong chance. Probably not in Europe and the US, but potentially in Africa and Asia. It has to be said that in some developing countries I've visited the village phone is always controlled by a matriarch. However, there's some difference between that and personal phone ownership. According to the excellent report Women & Mobile: A Global Opportunity from the GSMA: "a woman is still 21% less likely to own a mobile phone than a man. This figure increases to 23% if she lives in in Africa, 24% if she lives in the Middle East, and 37% if she lives in South Asia. Closing this gender gap would bring the benefits of mobile phones to an additional 300 million women".

While looking into this I also read an article from the Cherie Blair Foundation, which reiterates the idea that GDP grows 0.6% for every 10 percentage point increase in mobile penetration. So, increasing mobile penetration amongst women should boost GDP.

I also read an interesting paper on the impact of mobile phones on the status of women in India. The author Dayoung Lee concludes that "mobile phones significantly decrease both men and women's tolerance for domestic violence, increase women's autonomy in mobility and economic independence" and draws the startling conclusion that owning a mobile phone is "in some cases equivalent to more than five extra years of education".

It seems therefore that there is a huge amount of circularity about this issue. Higher mobile ownership by women creates a higher degree of economic independence, reducing the barrier to mobile phone ownership. It also provides a much (and I mean MUCH) needed economic boost. Of course, cultural factors may still prevail. It is the job of government to break these down. Not because it's right to empower women (although implicitly that's a good thing) but because it's good for business and good for the economy.

This has been a very superficial look at this intriguing topic. I'm sure I'll return to it in the not-too-distant future.

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