Gender gaps in ICTs have been well documented. Patriarchy and societal systems that favour men over women have traditionally played a role in preventing women access to and use of resources, including modern technology, and thereby mobile phones.It is not a stretch to imagine a priori that such a gender gap would exist in most African countries when it comes to ICT take-up.
However, studying the demand side behaviour of men and women in twelve african countries has shown that while these gender gaps exist, at face value, the gap for mobile ownership does not persist once urban and rural location differences are controlled for.
The graph above illustrates that in all of the twelve sub-saharan african countries, aside from Namibia, Cameroon and Botswana, male mobile phone ownership is higher than female mobile phone ownership. The mobile phone ownership of the entire population is a weighted average between the two. This graph seems to explain the observation that there is a gender gap in mobile phone ownership.
The graph below, however, looks at the same mobile ownership rates by country, but split between rural and urban areas, not gender. What is immediately apparent is that the gaps in ownership vary much more between rural and urban areas than by gender.
Research ICT Africa investigated this difference further and found that controlling for rural/urban differences affects the likelihood of a woman owning a mobile phone. Analysing the Urban and Rural populations separately shows that only Ethiopia exhibits an urban gender gap pertaining to mobile phone ownership whereas three countries exhibit a significant negative probability of mobile phone ownership when rural areas are considered separately.
When the entire population is analysed together, the gender gap seems significant – but this can be attributed to high rural/urban divides. Five of the twelve countries reported no significance on the female likelihood of mobile phone ownership in any of the models estimated, controlling for income and education.
In countries like Uganda and Tanzania, there seems to be a threshold of mobile phone expansion in place, that once crossed, reduces the gap in ICT (here mobile) ownership between men and women. Once this threshold is reached, differences based purely on sex disaggregation are no longer significant. This is consistent with the a general form of the theory of technological diffusion and adoption, where there is a critical point after early adoption where increases in adoption rates takes place.
This is particularly the case in urban areas –where mobile adoption is explained on the basis of education and income and other demographic characteristics. In rural areas, mobile phone ownership can be considered to be laggard, with those in the remotest regions likely to be the last to own mobile phones.
Just as the gender gap in mobile phone ownership has decreased after many years of women lagging behind, in a similar manner, use of the internet is in its infancy in many African states, and until a threshold is reached, women may still lag behind men in its use and adoption. Closing the gap with respect to ICT use, if achieved, can be expected to be achieved in urban areas first.