Overcoming the Gender Gap in Digital Connectivity

The world celebrated the International Women’s Day on the 8th of March this year, as it has been for past many years. In these times of waning pandemic, this should also have been a day to remind ourselves of the difficulties faced by a lot of our not so privileged communities that were forced indoors by the pandemic without having the luxury of Digital Connectivity. Across such communicates, women were the largest common group facing challenges whether it was to run their households, educate their children or to find resources to take care of the infected. As such, the pandemic brought to the fore the Gender Gap in access to digital connectivity faced by nearly half the population on this planet and in our country.

  1. The Gender Gap in Digital Connectivity

As per UN estimates, the global internet gender gap has grown from 11% in 2013 to 17% in 2019 and is around 43% in the least developed economies. Back home in India, we have witnessed a massive digital revolution over the last 2 decades and have more than 1178 million telephone subscribers, as per TRAI’s December 2021 subscriber report. 98% of these subscribers use wireless or mobile and more than 65% of these subscribers have access to broadband internet. Building on this massive increase in mobile and internet connectivity, the Government of India launched the Digital India mission with emphasis on the JAM trinity  that also became the foundation to provide access to many other services.

Despite having such a high number of mobile subscribers, various national and international surveys have continuously pointed out that this connectivity revolution has not been equitable and that our girls and women enjoy far less access to mobile or internet connectivity than their male counterparts. Though KYC norms mandate collecting the data around the sex of the person acquiring a SIM, it has been rare to find gender-disaggregated data being made available by either Department of Telecom or by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. In a rare instance when such data was released in 2018, it was reported that women only formed 17.4% of the entire subscription base. It has also been commonly observed that the male members of the house buy the SIM for the females in the family, therefore this data might not represent the actual ground situation.

Consequently, we have to rely on other sources of information, which regrettably, bring out the same sad state of affairs. The recently concluded 5th round of the National Family Health Survey had two important questions around women’s mobile ownership and use of the internet by men and women. The results indicate that as compared to 57.1% males who have ‘ever used the internet’, only 33.3% women have on a comprehensive India figure. As these figures are dissected, the rural internet usage gap is much wider than the urban usage gap, as one can expect. The encouraging news is that more than 54% of ‘women have a mobile phone that they themselves use’, which is an almost 8% increase from the figures reported by NHFS 4. The results also indicate that out of the 36 states and UTs surveyed, there are 12 states percentage of women who have ever used the internet is even less than the national average of 33.3%. In comparison, there are only 6 states and a UT where less than 50% of men have ever used the internet and the gender gap is quite distinct in all the states, except for Sikkim as shown in Figure 1 below. This is despite the same survey showing that more than 50% of women own a mobile phone in almost all of these states and UTs, except Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. 

Similarly, a Nielsen and IAMAI report released in May 2020, reports that out of 100 citizens using the Internet, only 35 are women. Beyond the headline numbers, the urban areas show a 60-40 split, and the rural areas have a 69-31 split in favor of men when it comes to Internet usage. The report also brings out the gender divide in top metro cities as shown in Table 1 below.

GSM Association has been working on increasing access to mobile connectivity for women under their Connected Women initiative and has been publishing the Mobile Gender Gap report for the past 4 years now. The report is based on a primary survey and projects the global, regional and national gaps in mobile access and usage by men and women, and also accords different reasons for the same along with quantifying those reasons. The Mobile Gender Gap 2021 report brings out an important fact that the gender gap is reducing and is down to 36% from 50% in 2019 in South Asia for internet usage and is around 19% for mobile ownership. For India, the report states that the mobile ownership gap is down to 15% (79% men own devices as compared to 67% women), the same gap is around 33% when it comes to using the internet (45% men vs 30% women). Figure 2 shows the difference in the type of devices being owned by the different sexes in India and Figure 3 illustrates the gender gap in usage of mobile internet in India in 2019-20.

Over time, GSMA has also identified the top reasons that inhibit the users from using mobile internet and have listed the following as the major ones:

  • Literacy & Skills
  • Access & Affordability
  • Relevance of Content
  • Safety & Security

  1. Why is it necessary to overcome the Gender Gap?

In 2019, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology worked with McKinsey and developed a high-level blueprint for achieving a 1 trillion Dollar Digital Economy by 2025-2030. The report appreciated the pace of digital transformation and suggested some key steps to be taken to achieve this ambitious vision. It also brought to the fore how technology has been a key enabler for women’s aspirations and skill-building but was not very vocal on how to bridge the gender gap. A separate McKinsey report suggests that “advancing women’s equality” could help add more than $ 770 billion to India’s GDP by 2025. Therefore, overcoming the gender gap would not only be equitable but also economically fruitful for the society(s). 

Another OECD study suggests that improving access to digital technologies for women offers them the possibility of “leapfrogging” various traditional social deficiencies and gives them access to education as well as probable sources of income that would help them achieve social and financial independence. 

With the advancement of the Digital India Mission, almost all government departments have started some or most of their service delivery through the internet. Be it election card update, or preparation of job roll muster in MGNREGA a lot of services are being enabled through the e-route. As such, grievance handling is also becoming more and more digital every day. In such scenarios, if we do not focus explicitly on improving women’s access and their skill for digital connectivity, we risk losing an entire section of the society outside the ring of empowerment, resulting in Digital Exclusion.

PM Modi had once said, “From opening Jan Dhan accounts for 22 crore women, giving soft loans to them under the Mudra Yojana, to launching Beti Bachao-Beti Padhao initiative, granting permanent commission to women in the armed forces and extending maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks, we have taken several steps for their empowerment”. We believe that it is the right time to focus on mainstreaming women in our digital discussions and planning explicitly for reducing the gender gap in digital connectivity.

  1. Policy Recommendations 

The Union Government, through the BharatNet program, has embarked on a mission to provide broadband connectivity to every village in India. In addition, the PM-WANI ecosystem has been launched which focuses on increasing Wi-Fi coverage in different parts of the country. With this massive outreach on connectivity, the government should also embark on a program to ensure that our girls and women are also empowered to make use of and benefit from this increased internet coverage. Following are a few important policy recommendations that could be leveraged to achieve this objective.

  • Gender disaggregated data: The first and foremost task should be to bring out gender-disaggregated data at a state level to ascertain the actual gender gap prevalent on the ground. With the advent of machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms, coupled with SIM ownership data, it should not be difficult to identify the main user of a mobile device basis the usage pattern. This data can then be used to design the policy direction and incentives. 
  • Access & Affordability: Government can plan for a special program for providing mobile handsets for women in select areas using funds from the USOF kitty, which are reserved for increasing access to mobile connectivity. In parallel, state governments can also be encouraged to arrange for special schemes for providing mobile devices to women. These devices could also be cross subsidized through bulk purchase as well as providing special incentives to mobile manufacturers by state governments.

Another suitable option could be to use the microfinancing route through the various SHGs present in various states.

Though the internet usage charges are the lowest in India, the telecom service providers may still be encouraged to offer special incentive packs for women users, to increase the affordability of using these services.

  • Digital Literacy: The government of India’s PMGDISHA program had aimed to train at least 1 person in about 40% of rural households with basic digital skills thereby training almost 6 crore people. But the training modules were common for all participants. The government could improvise this program to exclusively target women users with the training modules customized to their needs and demands. This would not only help them get over the hesitancy but would also help them in becoming more productive by ensuring repeat usage.
  • Safety & Security: The Union Government has taken many steps for women safety in the digital sphere. This includes mandating the feature which enables panic button calling on national helpline 112 on all handsets. Additionally, various government agencies have their apps for helping women in need. What is required is to spread the awareness of these apps in the womenfolk. Therefore, government agencies can run regular promotions of these apps and services through various channels of communication. They should also plan for demonstrations at the ground level so that women can see and understand the usage of such apps for themselves.
  • Social Training: Ministry of Women & Child Development has been a champion of women rights and empowerment. They have been successful to a large extent in balancing the sex ratio at birth for a large number of erstwhile imbalanced districts through the Beti Bachao, Beti Padaho Abhiyaan. A similar campaign must now be run, illustrating the message that Digital Saksharta for girls and women is as important as education. A study by GSMA also recommends that digital skills training programs must also take into concern the social gatekeepers and programs should be run that build confidence in these gatekeepers regarding the importance of digital literacy and skills. Programs must also involve male members of the house in giving such training to the female members so that the gatekeeping could be limited. We have also seen that this pandemic has forced many non-conventional things to go digital. As such, if the women of the house are trained for digital skills, they would be well off in maintaining the households even in times of such distress by using their newly acquired skills.

  1. Conclusion

Over the last few years, India has witnessed a connectivity revolution that has been powered by a strong combination of innovations in technology and affordable pricing, thereby producing rapid digitalization in all walks of life. The government of India too identified this need of the hour and launched a mission mode program, ‘’Digital India”, to ensure that governance delivery could be fast-paced and streamlined through the use of digital technologies. While on an aggregate level, Digital India Program has managed to achieve some success, ground-level data suggests that a particular section of the society – our women, are still not on par with the men when it comes to digital connectivity. Though the Digital India program managed to help citizens get access to a lot of governance on fingertips, it is important that dedicated efforts are made to onboard more and more women on this digital wagon, so that the fruits of efficiency could reach all sections of society.

Prime Minister Modi has been a strong votary of women-led empowerment which is visible from his focus on mission mode programs such as Jan-Dhan Yojana, Ujjawala Scheme and providing toilets through the Swachh Bharat Mission. As is being brought out by various studies, these schemes have physically empowered women in various ways and means. Therefore, it is an opportune time to complement these schemes through a dedicated program of making women digitally empowered thereby helping our Nari-shakti realize their true potential both in the physical and in the digital world.


The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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