India has been experiencing exploding growth in all manner of ways—including internet literacy. There are now 462 million active internet users, up 90% from March 2015. While 153 million people in the country are now active social media users, women make up a dismal share.
Typically, women dominate social media the world over but India is a different story. For every woman using Facebook, there are three male users on the platform, according to a recent report from UK consultancy We Are Social. Comprised of 24% women, the country’s Facebook user base gender ratio is one of the worst in the Asia-Pacific Region, joining its neighbors—Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh—at the bottom of the list.
“This iniquity of access between men and women may explain part of the reason why digital connectivity levels are so low across South Asia, but there’s no obvious reason for the imbalance,” Simon Kemp, Singapore-based regional managing partner for Asia at We Are Social, wrote in the report. In 2015, 114 million fewer women than men owned a mobile phone in India, according to global mobile industry monitor GSM Association. Kemp explained that Facebook tracks users based on individual accounts, not the devices they use. Therefore, shared mobiles and handsets shouldn’t affect the metrics.
The gender disparity is rooted in a culture that restricts autonomy for women. For instance, Indian women are more likely to”borrow” phones from friends and family than own their own device, according to GSMA. This technically isn’t the same as sharing a computer with a family—it highlights an element of seeking permission and thereby limiting usage. At a time when over a billion Facebook users access the site via mobile, 81% of Indian women have never accessed the internet on their phones.
Earlier this year, India surpassed the US to become the world’s second-largest smartphone market, according to Counterpoint Research. Brands have tried to make low-cost, high-utility products for India’s price sensitive market. One company even promised a $4 data-compatible phone. Despite these conveniences, women and men haven’t adopted the devices with matching speed. A rural user told the researchers at GSMA that men tend to have touchscreen smartphones whereas women usually have basic models—one without web access.
Women who are less exposed to the technology at an early age become less confident about performing complicated tasks on mobile phones. Last year, half the men had used Facebook on their phones whereas only around a quarter of women had done so. The report credits much of the discrepancy to lower levels of technical literacy—most women have never even sent an SMS— and “social norms which may limit or control women’s access to mobile services in general, and social media in particular.”
Net neutrality arguments aside, Facebook’s Internet.org failure in India is testament that the country craves basic, open internet over more sophisticated social media offerings. “Facebook alone won’t help us until we have access to Google. Google is what gives us all the information… We need YouTube also because like we get information from Google, we can watch that information through videos on YouTube,” Mriti Shukla, a college student, told a female-run weekly newspaper Khabar Lahariya (link in Hindi).
Social media engagement is second to basic online initiatives like Helping Women Get Online, a partnership between Google, Intel, Hindustan Unilever, and Axis Bank.