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Does gender matter in the design of digital infrastructure and services?

March 5th, 2021

Does gender matter in the design of digital infrastructure and services?

In a new study[1] by FSD Kenya in collaboration with Caribou data and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we explore features of digital services in terms of their implications for uptake and use of digital technology by women. The study finds that gender does matter. Focusing on women, the study begins by highlighting particular features of women’s relationship with the economy that influence their use of digital technology:

  • Women have lower aggregate incomes than men as a result of their more limited economic opportunities
  • Women are more time constrained than men, being responsible not only for earning income but also for unpaid work in sustaining households
  • Women’s economic transactions are based on trust and relationships, a key feature of the informal economies where they mostly operate where formal contracts are weak
  • Women have lower levels of comfort and confidence in their use of digital technology

In women’s engagements with digital providers, attributes of transactions which build trust and reliability can make the difference between increased use of digital services, or a retreat back to cash. These features include interoperability which provides a more reliable and seamless user experience; irrevocability and the concern that transactions once completed can be too easily reversed (cancellation prior to a transaction is preferred by the women in the study); real time confirmations which provide assurance that a transaction has gone through. The data also highlights the effects of time constraints on women’s propensity to invest proactively in engaging with, and even manipulating digital service offers (e.g. fee avoidance behaviour), as well as testing and trying out new innovations and apps.

In relation to confidence and comfort with digital technology, the study finds that women are more likely to receive information and build capacity in using digital services via familiar people and institutions such as chamas– informal groups, social networks and even agents. These face-to-face personalized relationships become a channel for building capacity and ‘spreading’ information on the features and benefits of digital tools that can add value for women’s lives. Catalysts for digital literacy would likely be early adopters who are influential in women’s groups and social networks.

Especially in the new world of smartphone technology, this research shows that income and gender are primary drivers of usage of smartphone technology. Higher income individuals transacted on their smartphones (though interestingly, not especially through apps) at a far higher rate than lower income individuals- likely driven by the cost of data. Equally, men have higher data consumption and spend more time in apps compared to women, which may be related to men having higher incomes but also more comfort with and interest in apps. Smartphone owners display surprisingly low usage of apps to transact (only about 12% of transactions are made via mobile apps, with the rest executed via SIM menu/ USSD), with a sharp difference between men and women- about 9% of women’s transactions via an app vs. 14% of men’s transactions. If smartphones are to become a major channel for the delivery of services and information -including health, education etc.- then income and gender-related barriers need to be factored in as a central component of technology driven initiatives.

If Kenya is to promote the development of digital infrastructure that benefits women as well as men, the study suggests that policy makers and providers need to come together to design and build for both. This is particularly the case as we look to the future of smart phone technology and its potential to extend the reach of services which are more tailored to individual needs. In a related article, Bryan Pon suggests that the smartphone era may deepen the gender divide in access to financial services, which are increasingly delivered through apps. He remarks that this is counterintuitive given the positive impact of mobile phones on women’s financial inclusion:

But basic mobile phones and mobile money systems offered a fundamentally different ecosystem structure that mitigated many of the challenges limiting women’s participation in the formal financial sector. For instance, mobile money accounts are lower-cost to serve, they don’t require expensive bank branches in rural areas, they don’t require consumers to spend time and money to travel, and so on. The move from basic phones to smartphones, in contrast, offers comparatively few direct benefits for women that can’t be achieved with basic mobile phones and services.

If digital technology is to address the gender divide in access to financial and other services, it is important that policy makers steer the expansion of smartphones to meet the needs of low-income consumers, especially women (for instance through leveraging their enhanced capabilities to reduce costs, increase trust and enhance relevance). As Pon suggests, without incentives to tailor their capabilities appropriately, an alternative trajectory is that smartphones become the standard interface for accessing digital products and services, leading to deeper exclusion.

In Kenya, the digital age has created extraordinary gains in financial inclusion, especially for women. As the digitization of the economy becomes more pervasive, will digital technology instead become a trojan horse?

[1] The study was undertaken by the DFS Lab together with Caribou Data, and based on original research funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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