Another Women’s Day, another round of semi-patronizing nonsense statistics. TMall’s “Independent Women’s Consumption Report” gives ladies a fatherly head-pat, enthusing that sales of wireless bras are up 62% (Huanqiu Tech):
- “The increase in women’s independence corresponds with the increase in their economic strength and freedom of spirit.”
- “[I]n the past two years, TMall has seen a gradual increase in the price of items bought by female consumers, and purchases of books, travel products, wireless bras, flat shoes, fresh flowers, and other ‘personal enjoyment’ items have risen dramatically.”
We are purposely blowing the outrage slightly out of proportion, sort of.
We aren’t saying consumption power isn’t a measure of economic autonomy, but it’s clear that underwire — or lack thereof — is not a valid metric of gender equality.
It’s a fashion trend. And the height of women’s heels as an indicator of “personal enjoyment” is economically contextual, to say the least. In China’s rural areas, an uptick in stiletto sales could be framed as a triumph for women (“women have more leisure time and disposable income for luxury spending!”).
You know what is one metric of gender equality, though? Mobile device ownership. Globally, men are 1.5 times more likely than women to own a mobile phone. When women, particularly women in developing countries, own mobile phones:
- They gain control over who they speak to, and when
- They have access to information that can help them succeed in school
- They can get phone calls from, and make phone calls to, potential employers
- They can directly access news relevant to their personal safety
- Their technical literacy increases
And on and on and on. Likewise, in places where women’s equality is struggling, the mobile ownership gap is particularly pronounced. The numbers out of India, for example, are abysmal — according to the 2019 GSMA Connected Women report, there’s a 28% gender gap in mobile ownership in the country. And on that count, the news out of China should put a spring in your step. Check this out:
China has been slowly but surely closing the mobile ownership gap for the last five years, and as of 2018, the numbers are looking pretty nice. In 2013, the gap was over 5%. These days, depending on who you ask, there’s either a 1% gap or no gap at all.
Good girls, bad girls, and mobile phones
So what makes China different from places like India, where the ownership gap is so marked, particularly in rural areas (Quartz India):
- “In India, less than 46% of women own and use a mobile phone, according to the fourth National Family Health Survey (NFHS) dated 2015-16.”
- “This has had the effect of limiting independence for many women, as well as access to opportunities, and the problem is worse when the data is examined more closely.”
- “In urbanized centers, 62% of women use their own handsets, but in rural regions the figure is under 37%.”
There are probably a big ol’ pile of contributing factors, but one that stands out is the lack of social stigma attached to phone ownership for Chinese women. In the Vodaphone Foundation’s 2018 global study of girls’ access to and usage of mobile, a recurring theme in countries where women’s access is notably poor was public perception as a deterring factor (Vodaphone Foundation):
“People say that the girl who touches the phone is a bad girl.” – Interviewee, 16 years old, Bangladesh
That’s not to say that the Madonna-whore dichotomy doesn’t exist for Chinese women, just that it’s not manifested via device ownership.
It’s also not to say that China’s technical playing field is level. Owning a mobile phone doesn’t necessarily equate to internet access, and on that score, there’s still a differential. In 2018, 52.7% of China’s netizens were men, 47.3% were women.
Nor does it necessarily equate to internet literacy. In 2018, sociology student Li Xinming (Lanzhou University) undertook an exploration of mobile-phone owning women in Gansu province and the barriers they face in terms of internet use and literacy. He outlined four primary obstacles:
Obstacle 1: Lack of awareness of features beyond calling and texting
In a series of interviews, Li asks how the women feel about the phone’s “other features” (those besides phone calls and chat), and finds that many respondents harbored feelings ranging from ignorance to disinterest to suspicion towards internet use, their primary concerns being uselessness and home-wrecking:
“Other features… I think there’s just getting online to chat over Wechat. Look at all the other young people around here, it’s just online chatting and killing time.” – Agriculturalist, age 28, illiterate
“Oh, I think smartphones aren’t good things, making and receiving calls is enough. How many families have been destroyed by smartphones? If a husband and wife are chatting often, they chat and chat and in the end run off with someone else.” – Construction, age 44, two years of primary school
Obstacle 2. Difficulties with basic device use
Some women interviewed had trouble navigating basic settings like volume control, screen brightness and sound, handing the phone off to family members when problems arise.
Obstacle 3. Inability to use Wechat features beyond basic chat
Wechat has already become an indispensable tool for communicating with friends and family, but while interviewees were mostly able to send voice chats and post pictures in a group chat, they were unable to use more complex functions, like deleting messages, finding and adding friends and sending money.
“I often use WeChat to speak with my relatives, but when people send me a red envelope [money transfer], I’m unable to receive it, and sometimes I want to add someone on WeChat so it’s easier to talk to them, but every time I have to wait for my son to come back and help me. Stupid, huh?” – Agriculturalist, age 38, four years of primary school
Obstacle 4. Fear of being cheated
Many of the women interviewed were unwilling to use features they were unfamiliar with due to fear of being victimized by scammers.
“My niece was once cheated out of 50 yuan [USD 8], I heard that she bought something online and had it sent to her school, but the package never arrived, and the seller was nowhere to be found. So I think you need to be prudent when buying online, and don’t buy online unless you must.” – Agriculturalist, age 39, one year of primary school
What happens next?
No big surprises here. As internet adoption rates increase, particularly in the hinterlands, women’s access is likely to increase accordingly, along the following lines:
- As China’s e-commerce giants and startups continue to push into rural markets, they’ll develop products and services better tailored to serve rural consumers, which will make the usefulness of internet access and online payments increasingly obvious to rural women.
- As rural areas raise their first generation of digital natives, obstacles to device usage will fade out.
- As an increasing number of rural residents supplement their income on platforms like Taobao (China’s answer to Amazon), women will pitch in to manage online home businesses.