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The Gendered Reality of Technology in India

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This is the second post in a series considering the impacts of the gender gap in technology and finance on women’s access and usage of financial services in India. The first post in this series provided an overview of the gender gap in access and usage of financial services in India and the landscape of digital financial services. This post provides a brief overview of the gender gap in technology in India, in order to provide context for the next and final post on the factors that must be considered to address this gender gap, if digital is becoming the new norm in financial services.

The rapid spread of access to technology has made the world increasingly connected. Over 3.8 billion people – close to 40 percent of the world population – use the internet today. Eight billion devices are expected to be connected to the internet by 2020 (Orleans Marketing Group, 2018). Internet and mobile phones are far-reaching technologies which have the ability to transform the way people live. The question at hand is this – are both men and women in India benefitting equally from the rapidly advancing technologies?

To unpack this question, in this post we focus on the use of mobile phones among all other types of technology. This is because mobile phones appear to be the most commonly used technology for accessing Internet-based applications and financial services by the population of a developing country like India. For instance, there are over a billion mobile subscriptions in India whereas only 6 percent of the total population are known to own a desktop or laptop (LIRNEasia, 2018; TRAI, 2018). Different reports estimate the penetration of mobile phone ownership and usage differently, but the gender gap in this respect is consistent across various studies. The GSMA estimates that 84 percent of Indian men and 65 percent of Indian women own a mobile phone, revealing a gap of 23 percent between men and women in India (GSMA, 2018). A survey by LIRNEasia reports a significant gender gap of 46 percent in India; only 43 percent of women own a mobile phone against 79 percent of men (LIRNEasia, 2018). Data from the Financial Inclusion Insights (FII) aggregated for 2015 and 2016[i] quoted in a report by Harvard Kennedy School finds that a further lower number of women (38 percent) own a mobile phone as against 71 percent of men in India (Barboni, et al., 2018). Despite the inconsistencies in reported figures, every report underlines the fact that the gender gap present in mobile phone penetration in India is high, even one of the highest in the world.

The gender gap widens with task sophistication: while the relative gap is between 15 and 20 percent for making and receiving calls respectively, the gender gap jumps to 51 percent for a feature as simple as sending a text message and remains above 60 percent for more complex activities such as using social media (Barboni, et al., 2018). There is also an urban-rural gap of 22 percent in mobile phone ownership in India, which needs attention because women constitute more than half of India’s rural population (LIRNEasia, 2018).

Barriers to Women’s Access to and Usage of Technology

Both economical and normative factors are significant in explaining the barriers for women to access and use technology. An intricate interplay of these factors contributes to the current situation of use and accessibility of mobile phones. Some key factors that act as barriers are set out below:


Affordability is the main impediment for both men and women for owning a mobile device (GSMA, 2018). However, women are disproportionately constrained by the cost of a mobile handset than men. Women are relatively poorer than men in India and elsewhere due to their limited access to the labour market and property rights (Staveren, 2001; Chaudhary & Verick, 2014).

Socio-cultural norms:

Entrenched socio-cultural norms about women’s role in the society appear to be a significant reason for lower rates of technology participation by women in India. For instance, analysis of the gender gap across the physical landscape tells us that it is not just economic development that explains the geographical variations of the gender gap. States like Haryana and Rajasthan have the largest gender gap, while states like Kerala and north-eastern states, where some social groups are known to practice matrilineality have the lowest gender gaps. It is indicative of the less restrictive social norms in these states (Barboni, et al., 2018).

Norms like maintaining purity for marriage, patrilocal exogamy[ii], subservience, and limiting women’s role to being caregivers for the children and the elderly could be considerable factors in the lower use of mobile phones amongst girls and women (Barboni, et al., 2018). According to the GSMA Connected Women Report, 16 percent of Indian women identify family’s disapproval as the biggest barrier to their mobile phone ownership (GSMA, 2018). Wider social structures, such as Khap Panchayats in the northern parts of India can also determine the rules and norms for women’s access to technology at the village level.  There have been numerous reports on such institutions placing restrictions on the use of mobile phone by girls and women. The onus of upholding the family pride is upon women and mobile phones are viewed as risk to women’s reputation (Kovacs, 2017).

General and technical illiteracy:

General and technical illiteracy obstructs women’s optimal use of mobile phone. A massive 30 percent of Indian women reported a lack of reading and writing skills as the biggest challenge to owning a mobile phone (GSMA, 2018). Low levels of literacy amongst women appear to severely limit their effective use of a mobile phone. 47 percent of women in India who have access to mobile phones are borrowers and for “obvious reasons, borrowing a phone rather than owning one imposes practical limitations on diversification and independence” (Barboni, et al., 2018). Only 16 percent of women in India use mobile internet; this figure is 20 percent less than that for men (GSMA, 2019).

Social norms are not standalone factors that impact the access and use of mobile phones by women. It is the underlying cause for most of the commonly cited reasons (GSMA, 2018). The general disinterest for investing in girls’ education results in women lacking skills to make the best out of digital innovations. This affects the affordability dimension of mobile phone ownership as well. Women are always expected to give up their ownership of a mobile phone – ‘a luxury’ – in order to save household income. Restrictions on women’s mobility and autonomy keep women away from the formal economy making them perpetually less prosperous (Barboni, et al., 2018).

Why is the gender gap in technology a concern for financial inclusion?

Both private service deliveries, as well as public welfare provisions, are being increasingly digitised in India and elsewhere. On the agricultural front, the Government is coming up with innovative service delivery mechanisms such as eNAM (Electronic-National Agricultural Market). The Digital India initiative aims to transform services such as healthcare and education. It lays emphasis on e-governance and making available government services electronically. Hence, the lack of access to technology for women is a concern for all areas of life. We raise some particular concerns for women’s financial inclusion in the last and final post of this series.


This post has been updated on 03 October 2019 for accuracy of certain figures.

Barboni, G., Field, E., Pande, R., Rigol, N., Schaner, S., & Moore, C. T. (2018). A Tough Call: Understanding barriers to and impacts of women’s mobile phone adoption in India. Harvard Kennedy School.
Chaudhary, R., & Verick, S. (2014). Female labour force participation in India and beyond. International Labour Organisation.
GSMA. (2019). Connected Women – The Mobile Gender Gap Report. GSM Association.
Kovacs, A. (2017, February). “‘Chupke, Chupke’: Going Behind the Mobile Phone Bans in North India. Retrieved November 19, 2018, from Gendering surveillance:
LIRNEasia. (2018). AfterAccess: ICT access and use in Asia and the Global South. LIRNEasia.
Orleans Marketing Group. (2018, January 12). OMG. Retrieved January 7, 2019, from
Staveren, I. V. (2001). Gender Biases in Finance. Taylor & Francis Group.
TRAI. (2018, August 31). Highlights of Telecom Subscription Data as on 31st August, 2018. Retrieved November 2018, 2018, from TRAI: 

[i] Data on mobile phone ownership is taken from the Financial Inclusion Insights by Kantar (2015 & 2016). Aggregation calculations are made by the authors and can be found in Annexure A of the report.

[ii] Patrilocal exogamy refers to the social system where the married couple is expected to reside with or near the husband’s parents (Barboni, et al., 2018).

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