Give women more cellphones and they will change the world

We need to provide ongoing commitment to ensure a balanced gender representation for inclusive growth to occur, which is key to Africa’s rise. (AFP)

We need to provide ongoing commitment to ensure a balanced gender representation for inclusive growth to occur, which is key to Africa’s rise. (AFP)

The disparity in the gender digital divide is not only an equality and social issue, but also a critical challenge to growing economic sustainability, financial inclusion and a truly connected Africa. Despite significant progress in mobile penetration over the past few years in sub-Saharan Africa, the region is home to more than 300-million unconnected women.

The latest research of the GSMA, a European association that represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, shows that the mobile sector makes a substantial contribution to gross domestic product, with some $100-billion raised in 2014. It is set to rise to $166-billion by 2020. They report that by closing the gender gap in mobile phone access and ownership an additional $170-billion could be added to the industry by 2020.

Not only will this increase gross domestic product but if it can work towards increasing the number of women who have access to mobile services, it will also have a trickle-down effect on numerous industries critical for growth, including agriculture, health, financial services and across-the-board innovation.

Instances of this correlation are being seen all over Europe. One of my favourite examples of how information and communications technology (ICT) innovation is specifically addressed to women is the Mobile Midwife by the Grameen Foundation. This is a free mobile service that enables women and their families to receive SMS and voice messages in their own language offering relevant and timely information throughout pregnancy and the first year after birth.

Another great example that recently caught my eye came from South Africa: the FoneAstra human milk pasteurisation toolkit. The application makes it easier to track and trace donor milk for increased quality control and assurance and can be adapted for use in settings with no electricity. Up to 25% of premature or low birth-weight babies cannot get sufficient breast milk from their mothers, often for reasons of illness or low supply, which leaves them more vulnerable to life-threatening conditions such as diarrhoea, pneumonia and neonatal sepsis.

However strong the social and economic benefits, the question of how we connect more women still remains. I have worked and lived in numerous countries and an obvious answer lies with policymakers and regulators; we need to table this issue more aggressively at local levels so that we see it getting on the agenda for national development plans. Addressing the digital gender gap is often left out of conversations that focus on inclusive growth through innovation and creating greater employment opportunities.

Countries such as Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo have a mobile gender gap of more than 30%. Cost is the greatest barrier to using and owning a handset; reducing ineffective taxation on mobile services will drive penetration.

That said, the private sector has potentially an even bigger role to play. I was impressed to learn recently that Tigo Rwanda has pledged to increase the percentage of women getting access to its mobile financial platform, Tigo Cash, from 39% of total users to 45% by 2020.

Commitments like these are bold and must be replicated in more companies and across multiple sectors.

We need to provide ongoing commitment to ensure a balanced gender representation for inclusive growth to occur, which is key to Africa’s rise. It is not good enough to put programmes in place. These initiatives need to be actively encouraged across all levels of business.

So whether it is from the C-suite to entry-level users, positions and opportunities must be provided that recognise a more equal gender dispensation throughout the mobile ecosystem.

This sector is rapidly growing and creating about 120?000 new jobs each year; we must get more women involved in this growth. Many girls and women have not taken advantage of this opportunity because of reasons such as cultural barriers.

Ericsson was one of the first companies to announce publicly specific employment goals and set out a vision for 2020 that commits the company to a 30% female staff complement. A regional diversity council has been established to attract and retain female staff. This is connected to programmes that foster and focus on female career development and leadership. I am proud to be the chairperson of this, but for initiatives such as these to work, the key is commitment from the top down.

We believe companies have a role to play in laying the groundwork for female equality and empowerment. We do this in a number of ways to address the imbalance in female representation at Ericsson and to make sure our male colleagues understand diversity is not a threat to them but rather a competitive advantage for our company.

These areas include hosting Girls in ICT events, and graduate and scholarship programmes with a special focus on female graduates with science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees.

There are also special incentives for female employee referrals. Our “unconscious bias” training for staff sensitises employees to underlying prejudices that we might not even be aware of as a result of our background, cultural environment and our experiences. Most importantly, ongoing leadership development, mentoring and sponsorship of women are implemented.

These are important stepping stones to changing traditional imbalances. It is clear that there are significant challenges to overcome. And although a few companies can start making a difference, for the effect to change gender inequalities of the past, the industry as a whole has to step up and take action.

  Tumi Chamayou is Ericsson’s vice-president, strategy and marketing for sub–Saharan Africa



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