Are Smartphones Sexist?


Generally, girls tend to have less access to mobile phones than boys in many countries around the world, and when they do have access, it’s conditional and complicated by patriarchy. Now, a brand new study by non-profit Girl Effect and the Vodafone Foundation has joined together in efforts to discover more information behind the statistics.

During the new study, the companies surveyed 3,000 adolescent girls and boys in 25 countries in south Asia, the United States and Africa and found that the increased risks and lower opportunities girls faced in real life were only replicated on their mobile phones. Their conclusion? Girls’ access to mobile phones is “complex,” influenced by varying factors including gender norms and financial capacity.

The Real Girls, Real Lives, Connected report, released to coincide with International Day of the Girl, takes figures from the GSM Association (GSMA) as its foundation; the GSMA Mobile Gender Gap Report 2018 says that in “low-income” and “middle-income” countries, 184 million fewer women own a mobile than men. What’s more, the report finds that “women are, on average, 26 percent less likely to use mobile internet than men.”

While the report mainly focused specifically on adolescent girls’ access to mobile technology, a number of interviews and online surveys conducted in countries including the U.S., like Colombia, Malawi, the Philippines, Rwanda, India, Nigeria, and Bangladesh all concluded that both gender and age strongly impact the likelihood of a teenager to own a phone.

Data from the survey has an average from Rwanda, Malawi, Tanzania, Nigeria, India, and Bangladesh indicates that indicated that boys are 1.5 times more likely to own any phone, and 1.8 times more likely to own a smartphone than girls (with U.S. data included, boys are 1.44 times more likely to own any phone and 1.6 times more likely to own a smartphone). The study also found that teenagers aged 18 and 19, meanwhile were more likely to own a phone than teenagers between 15 and 17. Additionally, it was discovered that boys are more likely to perform a wider range of activities using a phone.

When looking at activity from girls, the survey also discovered that girls are more likely than boys to borrow phones, most likely in areas where access is restricted because of their gender above anything else. Parental concerns and social norms can limit girls’ access: 47 percent of girls surveyed said they didn’t own a phone because their parents were concerned about their safety, for instance.

Globally, girls in the study reported to thinking of mobile technology as “a gateway to the world” in both negative or positive instances. During the study, one woman in particular who was 19 years of age and from Bangladesh, said, “We can connect globally, get to know more about what we are studying, and we can learn many things through the Internet…We can know about things that are unknown to us.”

Furthermore, during the study, an 18 year old woman from India noted that the facilities available to her after buying a mobile phone were unnecessary, although popular among girls who had access to it, stating “I do online exams, fill in application forms, send emails,” she said. “Smart phones have bad videos and other obscene material is there that pollutes their mind. And they talk with boys on over Whats App, which they hide from their family.”

Following the results, the study’s authors say, that mobile access “is often fluid and related to complex socio-economic factors” and is essentially more complicated than whether girls own phones or not. Tech literacy and digital safety should be incorporated into education, they suggest, while online platforms should allow for girls borrowing phones rather than owning outright.

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