Women and Mobile Technology

On Friday April 4, the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) held its 2014 Global Women in Leadership Conference, which, this year, examined the ways in which technology is providing new opportunities for women. The conference, entitled “Technology in Action: Changing the Way Women Live and Work,” also focused on how women are taking advantage of the fact that technology is not only improving service delivery, but playing a major part in advancing their empowerment.

“Women’s progress is human progress”

In her keynote address at the conference, Kathy Calvin, CEO and president of the United Nations Foundation, stated that, while the modern world is getting smaller, opportunities are getting bigger. She emphasized that technology is a specific tool that provides opportunities to women. Technology has paved the way for greater democratization and has revolutionized services, from banking and finance to education and health. We are also witnessing a power shift leading to ordinary citizens now proposing solutions: Bottom-up change is happening more than ever.  Technology is the solution that will continue to empower girls and women and, for that reason, is vital to the future. For, as Calvin emphasized, women’s progress is human progress. 

Dr. E. William Colglazier, science and technology adviser to the U.S. secretary of state, continued along this line of thought, stating that individual empowerment will accelerate owing to poverty reduction, global middle class growth, greater educational attainment, widespread use of new communications and manufacturing technologies, and health care advances.

While transformative technology is not limited to information and communication technologies (ICTs)—it also includes developments such as cleaner stoves or solar power systems—the discussion at this event largely focused on mobile technologies.  Mobile phones and tools have become popular in Africa. For example, M-Pesa, a mobile platform that has revolutionized access to banking in rural areas, is often quoted as a success story. Panelists at the event also cited initiatives like MAMA (which provides important information through text and voice messages to pregnant women), and M-Farm (which informs rural farmers of market prices for their crops, alerts them of good prices for inputs, and connects them to buyers), as important innovations for women.

These mobile technologies can also offer women a stronger voice and more control, particularly in business. A report funded by ExxonMobil and the Cherie Blair Foundation argues that mobile phones with added services are the best tools for women’s empowerment and for increasing women business owners’ productivity. In fact, the survey argues that women micro-entrepreneurs believe in mobile solutions to challenges: 82 percent of women entrepreneurs surveyed were willing to pay for added services through mobile phones.

Are ICTs gender-neutral in Africa?

Importantly, panelists at the event noted that there is still a substantial ICT gender gap in developing countries. While mobile phone penetration is very high in Africa at almost 80 percent, women in sub-Saharan Africa are on average 23 percent less likely to own a mobile phone, according to a GSMA report.  The report also notes that one critical obstacle to women’s access to mobile phones is affordability: Expensive ICTs are reserved for use by men, and women tend to get second-hand phones. Technology is viewed as a tool for men, so it seems that culture and attitudes toward ownership of productive assets can still be impediments to women’s access to technology.

Despite these remaining hurdles, these success stories of the transformative power of technology give us hope in addressing the complex web of adversities that Africans, especially African women, face.