The Rise Of Technology Isn't All About Robots Taking Over – It Could Be The Solution To Global Gender Inequality

The internet, for all its swindles and snares, is a gateway to basic education, communication, literacy, and health services, but also to financial independence, mobility and commercial success.
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Technology’s contribution to the widening rift between rich and the poor has made for compelling headlines in recent years, fuelled in no small part by Silicon Valley’s near-daily spawning of fresh-faced millennial billionaires.

If the media is to be believed, robots are going to systemically and barbarically take over our jobs. Routine production-line work will be first, but as artificial intelligence is perfected and refined, even highly skilled roles won’t be safe. Accountants, bankers, engineers and eventually even teachers, doctors, carers and journalists will be left idle, whiling away the remaining days of their sad outdated existence, each day regretting that they didn’t learn the art of coding when they had the money, energy and patience to. Incomes of the hoi polloi will evaporate as the real-life Victor Frankensteins (named Musk, Bezos, Zuckerberg and Co.) create sapient creatures that slowly but slyly take over the world.

The prospects make for great clickbait and provide a legitimate excuse for desperate newspaper picture desks to dig out images of The Terminator. We love to demonise technology and it’s in our nature to relish drama, but there’s another side to the story – one that we, basking in the luxuries of the developed world, may well be oblivious to: technology could be the answer to the age-old gender equality conundrum and mobile phones could be key.

A recent extensive report published by GSMA, the international trade body for the mobile industry, found that since 2014 mobile operators have connected 700 million new subscribers and a further billion have gained access to the internet through a mobile phone – many of those for the first time. That’s more than an eighth of the world.

The internet, for all its swindles and snares, is a gateway to basic education, communication, literacy, and health services, but also to financial independence, mobility and commercial success. Mobiles empower. But the report also found that across 18 low- and middle-income countries that the GSMA examined, 15 per cent of adults still don’t own a mobile phone and 45 per cent don’t use mobile internet. These people are among the most marginalised groups, they often live in very rural areas, are illiterate and older. And predominantly, they’re women.

According to the study, “women’s lower levels of mobile ownership and use not only reflect existing gender inequalities, but also threaten to compound them”. The so-called gender gap in mobile internet usage is 23 per cent. In other words, across low- and middle-income countries, 313 million fewer women than men use mobile internet. Of the regions examined, the rift is greatest in Southeast Asia, where women are 28 per cent less likely to own a mobile phone and 57 per cent less likely to use mobile internet.

So, for a change, here’s a problem we can fix.

While policymakers, academics and activists spend years trying to conjure up ways of closing the inequality chasm globally, part of the solution might simply be to equip the most affected with the tools they can use to reach their full potential. Instead of attempting to implement policies from above which, at best, might help the privileged few, why not empower women to help themselves by giving them the resources, even if those resources are as mundane as mobile phones?

The report demonstrates that closing this gender gap in those 18 mid-and low-income countries by 2023 would provide an estimated additional $140 billion in revenue to the mobile industry – an important part of the wider economy. More widely, it could add $700 billion in GDP growth over the next half a decade.

Of course, as is the case with all iterations of the gender gap, there’s nothing straightforward about closing this one. Barriers to mobile ownership are vast, starting with affordability. Women are less likely to be in paid employment, so less likely to have financial autonomy. Illiteracy present a barrier too, as does relevance: some women may have no interest in connecting. But there are plenty who would be able and willing to use a mobile and for whom the benefits would, quite literally, be life-changing. The countries studied include some of the world’s poorest – Mozambique, Tanzania and Guatemala, to name but three – and the economic boost would be marked.

You may argue that technology – in the form of job-snatching robots and omniscient machines – is evil. You may argue that technology – in the form of tools that connect the world and enlighten – is good. Either way, it’s dominance in our future is inevitable. So with any element of choice taken out of our hands, let’s use it to our advantage and leverage its power. All the better if it happens to help us create equal opportunities for years to come.


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