In 2004 I attended a screening of Shake Hands with the Devil, a documentary about General Romeo Dallaire who headed up the UN peacekeeping forces in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. Dallaire was at the screening and discussed his experiences afterwards during a Q&A session. When asked how he thought Africa could become a more peaceful and prosperous continent, he flatly replied: women. He believed that if women were more empowered, and had more prominent positions in government, and that their role as breadwinners, primary caregivers and family supporters were recognised and supported, Africa would be a more peaceful place.
This really struck me. It was something that I had always seen to be important, but until this army general said it so plainly, I hadn’t really believed in the criticalness of women empowerment. Since that night, I do believe it. And so it is an honour to be speaking here tonight, and to be a part of such a great movement: Girl Geeks.
In the last few months there has been a strong focus on women’s empowerment for a different reason: economic gain. An opinion piece published on Bloomberg last year (titled Secret to Rebuilding the World’s Economy by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon) describes how the world’s leading companies are beginning to see women as the next big growth opportunity.
“Investing in women is proven to be smart economics,” said Beth Brooke, Ernst & Young’s global vice chair of public policy, sustainability and stakeholder engagement. “Women as consumers represent one of the largest ‘emerging markets’ in the world next to China and India,” Brooke said, pointing out that women control more than 80 percent of household spending decisions. The focus now is on women as entrepreneurs, employees and consumers, all of which offer unique business opportunities for companies agile enough to take advantage of them.
It turns out that women are the key to rebuilding the global economy. The article says that “exploiting — in the most positive sense — the talents of half the world’s population is a business imperative.”
To me this seems obvious, but apparently it isn’t. More striking than the figures is the apparently new insight that women matter economically. It’s taken reports from Goldman Sachs Group and Ernst & Young, amongst others, to highlight this issue.
Professors from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and researchers from the Korea Labor Institute recently interviewed executives to explore whether a foreign corporation could boost profits by hiring women from the local labor markets where it operates, particularly in regions where women have traditionally been excluded.
They found that firms which hire and promote women to positions of authority enjoy greater profitability, a gain seen in both multinational and local companies. This competitive advantage was especially true at companies that hired women at senior levels.
Who would have thought?! Is anyone surprised by this? And of course, excluding women is costly business:
The United Nations has said that constricting women’s opportunities in Asian and Pacific nations is costing those regions more than $40 billion annually.
OK, so thanks to a few major consulting firms and the UN, we now know that women are good for economic growth. Regardless of whether equal opportunities for men and women is the right thing to do, it is apparently the most profitable thing to do. And like it or not, maybe that is the reason for women finally being included in economic activities.
But what about women and technology? (This is a Girl Geek Dinner after all!) Well, in the context of what I’ve been speaking about, an interesting initiative was started last year called mWomen, which is about increasing mobile access to women in the developing world for their socio-economic advancement. It is a relatively new focus area within the mobile for development (M4D) space, inspired by a report Mobile & Women: A Global Opportunity, and driven by the GSMA Development Fund. The report identified a sizeable gender gap in mobile phone ownership in low- and middle-income countries: there are 300 million fewer female subscribers than male subscribers in these countries. Across all countries a woman is 21% less likely to own a mobile phone than a man. By region this figure is:
- 23% if she lives in sub-Saharan Africa;
- 24% if she lives in the Middle East;
- 37% if she lives in South Asia.
Stemming from this gender gap are two key opportunities. Firstly, there is money to be made here: over the next five years women could account for two-thirds of all new subscribers. The gender gap represents $13B in unrealised per annum revenues for mobile network operators (MNOs).
Secondly, this is a chance to genuinely empower women, which has a series of positive knock-on effects. The report found that:
- 93% of women reported feeling safer because of their mobile phone.
- 85% of women reported feeling more independent because of their mobile phone.
- 41% of women who own a mobile phone reported increased income and professional opportunities.
- Women in rural areas and lower income brackets stand to benefit most from closing the gender gap.
These are very powerful and exciting reasons to close the gender gap.
So why is there a gender gap? According to research shown in the report, the barriers to womens’ adoption of mobile phones are:
- The price of handsets and services;
- Traditional attitudes towards women’s ownership of productive assets; and
- Women’s literacy around mobile technology.
The GSMA Development Fund wants to address the gender gap so that both the economic and social benefits can be realised. As a target, it wants to halve the gender gap, from 300 million fewer women to 150 million, within three years. Apparently there has been significant interest shown by mobile operators, vendors, governments and NGOs to partner with the GSMA to fund and jointly deliver projects to close the gender gap in developing countries.
Of course there is a tension in such a programme between extracting the greatest possible profit from this new subscriber base while also ensuring that they enjoy the greatest possible social benefit from it. Commercial and social opportunities can work in opposites. So the question is: how to balance this tension and create programmes that are economically sustainable as well as genuinely uplifting for women. According to the report, examples of how to achieve this include:
- Female specific airtime tariffs;
- Culturally sensitive marketing;
- Gender based information services via text messaging and IVR for education, entrepreneurship, health and financial inclusion; and
- Capacity building programs to train women in how to use a mobile phone.
Part of our mission is to creatively and effectively implement these actions, and to come up with others, and I think that there are many others.
Mobile is Africa’s great success story. The technology can genuinely empower women. It not only provides a mechanism for distributing information, but also for giving women a voice, and access to opportunities. Both of which have been denied women for far too long.
A project that I’ve lead over the last few years is Yoza Cellphone Stories. We publish short stories on MXit and a mobisite for teens and young adults to read. Remember, South Africa is “book-poor” but “mobile phone-rich”. We have 63,000 subscribers on MXit, 56% of which are female. Our stories are about romance, relationships, fashion and soccer. But they have social messages in them about issues such as AIDS, peer pressure and sexual abuse. And our readers are engaged enough to respond. An example is Sisterz 2: Hidden Danger, about a teen girl’s mother who hooks up with a boyfriend that keeps walking into the teen’s room while she’s getting changed. Throughout the story there is a tension that the mother’s boyfriend might abuse the daughter – a very common occurrence in this country. I urge you to spend a few minutes reading through all the comments on this chapter, where we asked whether maybe girls shouldn’t wear skimpy clothes because this is what causes men to get ideas (we use deliberately provocative prompts to get the readers talking). You see from the comments that this really struck a chord with our readers who, in a public forum, told their own creepy stepfather stories, or mothers who vowed to protect their children from such men. So I have personally seen the empowering effects of mobile phones.
I’ve recently joined the mLab Southern Africa, an incubator for mobile apps and content services. We have a focus on M4D and want to position ourselves as key players in the mWomen space. So if you have a mobile app or content idea – especially with a women focus, please come and talk to me.
I’d like to close by saying that we all need to be active players in developing solutions not just for women, but that empower women, and to work on removing the economic, social and cultural barriers to use of those technologies by women. There are very exciting possibilities ahead. Imagine what can happen when 300 million more people are connected and empowered to use the tools in ways that we have not yet thought of. I’m confident that we have the experience, the creativity and the initiative to make these possibilities happen.