Mainstreaming Gender in Technology

This is the first conversation of Inter-Linked’s 4-part series on ‘Gendered Identities in the Digital Space’. Prof (Dr) Lina Sonne foregrounds our understanding of accessibility, usage, and ownership of technology, and technology-enabled devices (mobile phones), to establish how women continue to be disadvantaged in this perceived gender agnostic space. This conversation primarily draws from Dr Sonne’s research in this area of women’s use of mobile phones in India.

This article contains the key takeaways and excerpts from our conversation with Prof (Dr) Lina Sonne. It is not the full transcript. You may listen to the entire podcast episode, here

Setting the Context: Is technology gender neutral?

It is the structure of ‘who’ gets to enter the technology space through their educational background and industry experience. Even in terms of the people who get to test the technology, it is likely to be a man. Across the spectrum, from creators or designers to users who test the technology, all are more likely to be men. Women get subsumed in this assumed neutral group of users. These neutral data points in the fields of medicine, for example, or urban traffic policy, of users’ experiences, is, in fact, collected on men and therefore may not necessarily apply to women. Prof Sonne says,

Women may have different access or usage issues…Mobile phones were often too big to fit in an average female’s hands! Another common example from the West is that the air conditioner’s cooling temperature at workplaces was better suited for men’s apparel [suits/blazers/full-sleeved shirts] and not women wearing dresses or skirts. 

Clearly, there hasn’t been much thought about women’s user experience.

Mobile Phones & Digital Access in India

An overview of usage and ownership of mobile phones in India

Prof Sonne has been focusing on the role of mobile phones and their association with digital freedoms and access in India, which has allowed the government to channelise other kinds of services in health (M-Health in the pandemic), (online) education, etc., especially to low-income consumers. She seeks to bridge the existing gaps in research on the penetration of mobile phones through a gender lens.

Inequalities exist in different contexts, depending on the lived experience of that individual. In the case of middle- and low-income women, Prof Sonne indicates that not much is known about the usage of mobile phones by these women. She says,

When we look at how women use phones in India, there is [of course] an increasing use. Some data points show that when there is one phone in the family, it is the man’s phone. When there are several phones in the family, the man tends to have the most advanced phone. But we need to dig deeper if we want to improve programmes, services, policies for women in India…

Ownership of phones – both smart and feature phones – by women in India have increased, especially since the introduction of Jio. This reduction of gaps in accessibility have decreased; however, women continue to lag behind in terms of how they are able to use phones:

Vast majority of women send messages frequently. But in terms of using more advanced features like using Google or music apps, say YouTube, it reduces if it is a woman user…

In the pandemic, however, Prof Sonne highlights some interesting developments in the case of low-income women’s mobile phone usage,

Another interesting finding is that women have moved to WhatsApp, including the usage of more advanced features in the application. Very few women use SMS these days. Even changing WhatsApp status is common in rural areas…there is, however, not much difference in how urban and rural women used their mobile phones. Quite a few women were using mobile money during the pandemic too. Usage of YouTube increased too; pre-Tic Tok ban, women were seen to be using this space too. Online shopping has seen an increase too, as it is voice-enabled and not restricted to the main languages to Hindi and English anymore.

How does patriarchy translate into the digital (mobile) space?

Prof Sonne highlights five broad constraints of patriarchy translating from the physical to online space(s).

  • ‘Where’ and ‘how’ women use phones

Geography of use is very different between a man and a woman. A man in India can use his phone wherever he pleases. Women, on the other hand, use their phone in the home or closed spaces, where they cannot be seen or heard. Using phone outside are only for urgent matters. 

It is about honour, and women don’t want to be seen as “loose”. This doesn’t happen if it is a man. 

  • Phone use out of necessity and not ‘frivolity’

Women cannot just “hang around”. In 2018, a study showed how women primarily spoke to family members and engaged with close social relations, whereas men had general social catch-ups. 

  • Surveillance

Mobile phones have given women freedom; however, this may be used to track their movements.

Parents may be comfortable sending their daughters to a college in the next town. But, at the same time, young women might be asked to turn on location tracker on their devices. It also takes other forms. In my interviews, it [surveillance] also varies…husbands may check their [interviewee’s] phones on a fairly regular basis, asking who they spoke to, among other things. Sometimes going so far as to installing spyware on the phone to track women’s data and usage. We clearly see that while mobile phones are an opportunity for more freedom and gathering more information, patriarchy continues to tag along and has facilitated more efficient means to keep an eye on what women do.

Prof Sonne also narrated a case from Rajasthan where boyfriends bought phones for their girlfriends in order to keep a tab on their whereabouts.

  • Phones are (not) designed for women

Even when women do get phones, including when men buy them, the vast majority do not have anyone to ‘learn from’ unlike men who have a much wider social network. As a result of which women often need to figure it out on their own or seek help from their children.

  • Cultural belief that women aren’t good at technology

Women, and those around them, may have internalised the belief that women cannot use technology. This limits the usage of a mobile phone too.

Concluding this segment of our conversation, Prof Sonne mentions that women have to be very careful as to how they handle themselves in the online space; there is a fair bit of self-censoring. Women prefer closed-circuit apps, like WhatsApp, where they cannot be easily reached. 

The reputational harm to a woman being seen as doing things they shouldn’t be doing online is much higher than a man.

This comes back to the patriarchal notion of “what’s a good or a bad woman”. This especially impacts young women. 

How can women be fully included in the digital space on their own terms?

Briefly highlighting the space for feminist activism in online spaces, Prof Sonne remarks that Twitter, or social media generally, is for English-speaking and urban voices. It is not representative of Indian voices because of the country’s diversity. “Who is being heard in the feminist space?”, is a question we must ponder upon.

In terms of policy, it is known that technology is a rapidly evolving space. Here, Prof Sonne says,

Being gender blind is not the same as being gender-inclusive. We need to understand how different users experience a policy, programme, or regulation. Who has access? Do women have access to safe spaces online? Do women have agency online, or does it move to the mother-in-law, husband, etc.? In my interview in the middle of COVID, we could sense that there was someone else in the [woman’s] room listening in to that conversation. One interview stopped because the son listening to the conversation was not comfortable, even though it was a simple question around ‘how do you use your phone’…

This may impact policies on online education, for example. We need to understand that products and services have different gendered user experiences.

Featured Image: Analytics Insight

Prof Sonne recommends reading Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez, and Anja Kovac’s work on Data Politics. This podcast was conducted in collaboration with the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER). It has been hosted by Tanya Rana, Research Assistant at CNES, and Isha Suri, Research Associate with the Digital Economy, Startups and Innovation team at ICRIER.

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