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Gender inequality in tech starts with teenagers on their cellphones

Girls have less access to mobile phones than boys, study shows
Reuters/Michael Dalder
It’s about so much more than a selfie.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Girls have less access to mobile phones than boys, and when they do have access it’s complicated by patriarchy. A new study by non-profit Girl Effect and the Vodafone Foundation 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.

Globally, 184 million fewer women than men owned a mobile phone, according to the report. Teenage girls are usually lumped in with women in gendered studies on phone usage, but the “Real Girls, Real Lives, Connected” report found that teenage boys are nearly twice as likely to own a smartphone compared to girls, in countries outside the US.

A combination of social and economic barriers kept girls away from mobile phones. Most girls in the survey simply couldn’t afford a phone and rarely had opportunities to earn money, as boys did in order to buy a phone. When they did have a phone, in low and middle-income countries it rarely led to phone upgrades, but rather phones could quickly become obsolete because the girls surveyed could not afford repairs. In many cases, they could also not afford the airtime or data needed to use the phone regularly.

Still, the study also showed just how industrious girls were in getting their hands on a cellphone. More than half of the girls in the survey borrowed a phone, compared to only 28% of boys. In much of the Africa sample, mothers and older sisters were the main source of a phone, while in Nigeria, it was often the generosity of the male family members that helped girls. In other cases, like Nigeria’s conservative north, girls were known to share a secret cellphone that was either borrowed from an older sibling or gifted by an older man.

This limited access to phones means that usage also differed significantly from boys, keeping girls from the life-changing technologies mobile phones now offer. Where boys accessed WhatsApp, YouTube, used the internet to find work or read the news, girls cellphone usage was limited to calls or sending texts to keep in touch with family and friends.

While the surveyed girls often said they wanted to use phones to “learn new things,” they were unsure what exactly they could learn on a phone. As phones were borrowed or hidden, many girls didn’t have anyone to teach them how to use their phones.

“Girls should avoid using Facebook because on Facebook most people talk badly, and also girls should avoid giving their phone numbers to men and we should be listening to our parents,” said one girl from Malawi.

Across the Africa sample specifically, girls said that a romantic or sexual relationship with a more affluent boy or an older man was one of the easiest ways to get a cellphone. In South Africa, where there were fewer restrictions on phone use compared to other countries in the sample, the phone itself becomes emblematic of the relationship—as a confirmation that they are in a relationship and that the man can provide for them financially.

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