Improving the Lives of Women and Girls through Technology

October 31, 2013

According to a 2010 report by the GSMA and the Cherie Blair Foundation, mobile phone ownership can transform the lives of women in the developing world: Of the more than 2,000 women surveyed from four low- to middle-income countries (Bolivia, Egypt, India, and Kenya,) 41 percent of women reported increased income or professional opportunities, 85 percent reported higher independence, and 93 percent reported feeling safer because of mobile phone ownership.

Similarly, Intel’s Women and the Web study—which surveyed 2,200 women from India, Egypt, Mexico, and Uganda—reports that 77 percent of the women surveyed used the internet to further their education. Among other examples, 54 percent of women surveyed in India used the internet for financial services and banking, and 68 percent of women surveyed in Egypt reported that they felt access to the internet gave them greater freedom. 

These findings show that access to and, importantly, the ability to understand and use technologies, can have a positive impact on women’s freedom of expression, education, and employment opportunities. In spite of these gains, however, women in emerging markets face significant barriers to technology access and adoption; challenges include cost, literacy, cultural norms, safety, and lack of understanding of potential applications. As a result, women in the developing world are up to 37 percent less likely to own a mobile phone than men, and, compared with men in developing countries, 25 percent fewer women use the internet.

For business, this is a missed opportunity.

The Women and the Web report found that the market opportunity in getting 150 million women and girls online is worth between US$50 billion and US$70 billion and could contribute an estimated US$13 billion to US$18 billion annually to developing countries’ GDPs.  Similarly, GSMA reports that adding 300 million female subscribers in low- and middle-income countries will result in US$13 billion in revenue to mobile operators.

By better understanding and integrating women’s needs into product development, marketing, and distribution, information and communications technology (ICT) companies can develop profitable new markets while supporting social progress for women. For this article, I spoke with seven leading thinkers in women’s empowerment from NGOs, government, and business to explore what these opportunities might look like and what ICT companies are already doing to expand access to technology for women in emerging markets.

Address Gender-Specific, Local Needs

Most of the people I interviewed suggested that to close the gender gap in technology, ICT companies must adapt their products and offerings to women by specifically integrating local cultural contexts. Products need to be based on actual needs and experiences of women in their communities. A few companies and women’s empowerment organizations have already begun to do this effectively by considering some important best practices:

Create safe environments and focus on women’s empowerment: Dell recognized that women in Kabul, Afghanistan, were largely excluded from or harassed when attending male-dominated internet cafes, so the company created the city’s first women-only cafe in Kabul. The cafe also offers training and mentoring programs for those who do not have experience with the web or do not understand how it can be relevant to their lives. In a similar fashion, Vodafone encourages women’s empowerment in India through “Angel Stores,” which are run and managed entirely by women, and which have resulted in more women feeling comfortable buying phones. Vodafone now runs 15 Angel Stores in 13 states across India.

Make adaptations based on local languages and customs: According to Mahesh Novak, a business analyst with GSMA mWomen, changing several aspects of a voice-messaging service for female farmers in Kenya helped increase response rates and trust in a service that provides crop tips, market prices, and other information to support their businesses. After noticing that female farmers were not using the service, GSMA made several changes: switching voice alerts from a man’s voice to a woman’s voice, providing translation options (from primarily English-based devices), and using icons and voice capabilities that help illiterate populations use the service.

Share stories to inspire new applications of existing products and services: Mariam Memarsadeghi, the executive director of, an organization that provides online training in human rights and digital safety to Iranian activists, shared a story about HARASSmap, a volunteer-based mobile app that collects and geographically documents incidents of sexual harassment in Egypt. Memarsadeghi suggests that ICT companies share stories such as this to inspire women to adopt and use technologies in ways that are relevant to their own local needs. In Iran, for example, she envisions Egypt’s HARASSmap could be adapted to report incidents of wrongful arrests for “violations” of Islamic dress code.

Collaborate with local partners: When Qualcomm launched its online mentoring program for female entrepreneurs in Malaysia, it was important to gain early insights about what was and what was not working, so the company partnered with Grameen Foundation, which regularly sent field officers to meet with the trainees. Through Grameen’s direct interaction with the women, Qualcomm learned that some top-performing trainees were being forced to drop out by their husbands or fathers. In response, Qualcomm invited the trainees’ husbands and fathers to participate in some aspects of the training program so that they felt more involved and supportive of their partners or daughters. As a result of this change, far fewer women dropped out.

Moving Forward

These examples demonstrate how integrating gender-specific, local needs into product development and dissemination can help more women in the developing world access and use technologies that can improve their lives. But to truly close the gender gap, ICT companies must also scale up these projects.

In order to decrease redundant efforts aimed at empowering women, it will be critical for companies to invest in tools that can easily be shared or repeated at scale. As Ann Mei Chang, Mercy Corps’ chief innovation officer, noted, “To avoid redundant efforts and achieve scale, ICT developers should consider investing in reusable components such as messaging platforms, client management, and other extendable systems.” Cisco’s Public Benefit Investments team lead and corporate affairs manager, Charu Adesnik, similarly emphasized the need for open-source platforms that anyone can adapt or use in order to decrease redundant efforts and costs.

The potential for technology to improve the lives of women and girls across the globe is too large an opportunity to miss. As stated by World Pulse founder and global women’s empowerment leader Jensine Larsen, “If we combine the best of the global technology industry with the ingenuity and resourcefulness of women on the ground to solve the digital divide challenge, we can unlock a colossal wave of human potential and freedom for future generations.”

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