Artificial IntelligenceCryptocurrencyMetaverseCybersecurityTech Forward

Women’s rate of internet use was growing—until COVID hit. Now, a top telecom has ideas for how to close the remaining gender gap

June 21, 2022, 12:00 PM UTC

Last week, a group of women technologists, United Nations officials, and technology industry experts gathered virtually to deliver the latest findings from their annual progress report on the tech world’s $1 trillion problem: the internet gender gap. In previous years, the report gave gender-equality crusaders some reason to cheer. Real progress was being made in bringing millions of women and girls from the poorest countries online for the first time, giving them access to vital new resources to learn, develop skills, and earn an income. COVID-19, it turns out, has stopped that cold.

“Since 2017, more women than men have been going online with the mobile internet. But in the last year, for the first time ever since we’ve been getting data, that trend has changed,” Claire Sibthorpe, head of digital inclusion at telecom trade group GSMA (short for Global System for Mobile Communications), publisher of the annual Mobile Gender Gap Report, told Fortune. “This year, it’s stalled, particularly in India.”

GSMA found that in 2021, 59 million women in low- and middle-income countries accessed the internet for the first time from their mobile phone, far fewer than the 110 million women who logged on for the first time in 2020. That steep drop-off, the GSMA report noted, “is significant since mobile remains the primary way most people access the internet, especially women.”

Affordability has long been the biggest obstacle to women’s ownership and usage of a mobile phone capable of accessing the internet. More recently, the economic of impact of COVID-19 on households across the developing world has put cell phone ownership and usage for some women further out of reach, another example of how the pandemic has hit women around the world harder than men.

“We’re very worried, because economically things are not improving, and women are being disproportionately impacted,” said Sibthorpe. “That’s why we really feel that this report is a call to action. We just can’t be complacent.”

What’s at stake

It should hardly come as a surprise that an industry trade group like GSMA, one built to promote growth in the mobile telecom sector, would deliver the message that more needs to be done to get smartphones into the hands of the world’s poorest women and their families. But independent study after study bears out the urgency of closing the digital divide. Women, for example, increasingly use the mobile internet for educational purposes to enrich themselves and for the benefit of their children. And, in an increasingly cashless world, handsets are vital tools to transact and start businesses. Mobile money apps are booming across Africa, for example, creating a new entrepreneurial class across the region’s vast “unbanked” population. (In March, Breakthrough featured the story of Susan Njeri from Nairobi who turned to M-Pesa to expand her grocery business even as COVID-19 rocks the local economy and runaway inflation eats at Kenyans’ purchasing power.)

Moreover, internet connectivity is a key plank to the United Nations’ 2030 sustainable development goal of eradicating the gender gap in health, education, and financial inclusion. Sadly, there are a number of indicators showing the world will fall short of reaching that end-of-decade target.

Lack of progress in this area would hit emerging economies the hardest. A recent study of internet penetration in 32 low-income countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America by the Alliance for Affordable Internet, an advocacy group working to bring down the cost of connectivity, raised the alarm that failure to address this inequality stifles growth and keeps women and their families trapped in poverty. “Countries have missed out on $1 trillion in GDP as a result of women’s exclusion in the digital world,” the group calculated.

In its latest report, GSMA singled out the problems in India where internet usage among women has flatlined at 30% of the population. Conversely, for men, it’s closer to 50% and rising.

Vishakha Saigal, vice president and head of strategic initiatives at Reliance Jio, India’s biggest telecom operator, understands why. “When it comes to access to smartphones or the internet, a male member of the household is given preference,” Saigal said. “This intra-household disparity was amplified amidst the pandemic with declines in the household income leading to the widening of the gender digital divide.”

Rather than dwell on the souring numbers, she said the report’s findings show it’s time for bold action for her country and the rest of the developing world to tackle this digital divide. She laid out a step-by-step approach to do so, highlighting a plan that Jio has put into action in recent years and accelerated since the pandemic.

Affordable phones, relevant apps

Jio’s inclusion strategy involves not just beefing up 4G coverage holes in its network, but also outreach and training programs in poor and marginalized communities to educate those unfamiliar with the benefits of mobile internet technology. To hammer home the message, the mobile network giant has been developing apps dedicated to the community’s biggest needs, focusing on such areas as health care and personal well-being, agriculture (including livestock rearing), and education for children—each programmed in a variety of local languages. “You have to take into account local languages, customs and traditions, especially in rural regions, to drive adoption,” she said.

And to tackle the illiteracy divide, Jio has been expanding the A.I.-powered voice-to-text and speech-recognition functions on the phones. These measures, she said, have “surely helped us in our endeavor to get women online.”

Those innovative efforts have also pushed a raft of partners to Jio’s door. For example, last autumn Jio teamed with USAID, the U.S. State Department’s international development agency, to launch the WomenConnect Challenge, a $1.5 million program to bring 300,000 low-income women onto the mobile internet for the first time.

And last autumn Jio teamed with Google to codevelop the JioPhone Next. Billed as “an affordable feature phone,” the JioPhone Next is priced around 4,300 rupees ($55). It’s equipped with a whizzy camera and runs on Pragati OS, a specialized version of the Android operating system—a big step up in capabilities from the $10 LTE-based handsets Jio has sold in recent years, which succeeded in bringing millions of Indians into the mobile market for the first time. Gadget reviewers, incidentally, give the JioPhone Next handset high marks, but it’s been slow to steal market share from Chinese handset maker Xiaomi so far.

A new JioPhone Next handset pictured during a media preview in Mumbai on Nov. 1, 2021.
Punit PARANJPE—AFP/Getty Images

Women’s rights activists, meanwhile, are applauding another bold initiative in India designed to accelerate inclusion among the country’s most marginalized communities. Later this year, the Indian state of Rajasthan will begin distributing free smartphones to 13.3 million women in low-income households. The handsets will include three years’ worth of free data. The taxpayer-funded program will cost roughly $1.2 billion.

Nevertheless, Saigal sees this kind of approach as a compelling new model to make meaningful progress in bringing the most impoverished women online.

“In my opinion, such government- or state-led interventions to provide handset support, along with constant innovation from operators and other private sector players…can go a long way to kick-starting the digital journey for millions of women,” she said.

Each week, Fortune covers the world of innovation in Breakthrough. You can read previous Breakthrough columns here.