Riya* (45), a beautician with Urban Company, a home services business that operates in major cities in India, is talking about the time a client withheld payment of Rs 1,500 for her services.

The problem arose at the end of the session when it turned out that the client did not have cash at home and Riya had not set up a payment app on her phone. “I had no option but to come back for the money 10 days later,” Riya told IndiaSpend.

A Delhi-based graduate, Riya was reluctant to avail banking services on her phone because she said people her age are not aware of these services and she was not comfortable using such applications. She bought her first smartphone only in 2020 when she joined Urban Company as a service provider. Her husband too does not own a smartphone, leave alone know how to use one, so she had to finally ask a trusted client to help her set up a payments app on her phone.

The Covid-19 pandemic reinforced the importance of access to mobile and mobile internet for information, healthcare, education as well as e-commerce, financial services and income-generation opportunities. But, according to the, Mobile Gender Gap Report, 2022 by GSMA, a global organisation that promotes digital inclusion, the pandemic also “highlighted the stark digital divide” where those without access to mobile internet “are at risk of being left even further behind”.

Over half of women (53.9%) in India own mobile phones but amongst these only 22.5% reported using them for financial transactions, according to the National Family Health Survey-5.

Given the lower mobile phone usage by women, “naturally there would be a gender gap in internet usage”, said Sona Mitra, an economist at Initiative to What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy. National Family Health Survey data show that about a third of Indian women use the internet.

Further, use of the internet seems to reinforce existing inequalities. More than 72% of women with over 12 years of education have used the internet, compared to just 8% of women who had studied until Class V. Younger women were more likely to use the internet than older ones, and those in the highest wealth quintile were more likely to have used the internet than those in the lower quintiles, finds the National Family Health Survey.

Deprived of opportunities

India’s digital gender gap is glaring – and it’s showing.

The gap inevitably means that women are deprived of opportunities in a labour market where digital skills are in demand, according to a 2022 report by the Asian Development Bank and social networking platform LinkedIn. The Covid-19 pandemic made remote working more common, according to a survey by freelancing platform Upwork.

Unless India’s women are able to catch up, and fast, to bridge the existing gap, it will continue to affect their prospects for entrepreneurship, restricting women-run businesses to low-tech, and low revenue-generating sectors such as food and handicrafts with few opportunities for growth.

Online and remote jobs offer women the freedom to work from their homes, finds this conference paper titled “Now we are independent: Female online freelancers in India and Sri Lanka”, based on discussions with women in the two countries.

Women’s employment in India was already in freefall when the pandemic arrived. An estimated 21 million women had fallen off the labour map between 2017 and 2020, according to private research firm, Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

[See IndiaSpend’s first series on India’s declining female labour force participation here.]

The pandemic affected women’s employment disproportionately. In percentage terms, more women lost jobs than men. By the end of 2020, labour force across India had shrunk by 13% for women and 2% for men, Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy data found.

But earlier this year, the Periodic Labour Force Survey found women’s labour force participation at 32.5% at its highest level in four years. But this, as our previous story analyses, was driven largely by a rise in rural women’s labour force increase and the fact that economic distress was leading women to taking on even very low-paid work.

[This story is part of our ongoing Women At Work 3.0 series of stories exploring the post-pandemic reality for women in India’s labour force. Read the first four stories in this series here, here, here and here.]

Three principal factors

India’s digital gender gap is the result primarily of three factors. The first is a rural-urban divide; women in rural areas are less likely to own mobile phones than those who live in urban India, said Mitali Nikore of Nikore Associates, an economics research group.

Even amongst urban women, digital payments, a basic step toward digital adaptation, for instance, are more common among organised than unorganised women workers, she said. “The cost of data and services restricts wider usage among unorganised urban workers.”

The second is an income-based divide. Accessing data can cost low-income households as much as 3% of their monthly income, said Nikore.

The third is social norms. In a society where mobile phones are viewed as a risk to women’s reputation pre-marriage and an interruption to caregiving responsibilities post-marriage, “women’s online activity is often governed by male relatives”, said Nikore.

Explained Riya: “I bought my smartphone from my savings, I pay for data services from my earnings. Urban Company does not reimburse me for these expenses–nor did they provide any training beyond the basic features of their own app [which allows her to accept or decline services].”

As many as 82% of the 636 women who owned and managed their own businesses were not digitally literate, found a 2021 study of 10,000 rural and urban women from Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana, conducted by the Digital Empowerment Foundation, a Delhi-based organisation that promotes digital literacy. Further, 80% of them said they had never used a payment system like PayTM, Google Pay or Bharat Interface for Money.

“However, digital penetration and adoption are increasing, and with it, so is the use of smartphones,” said Sabina Dewan, president and executive director of Just Jobs Network, a global research organisation focused on employment solutions.

In India, smartphone ownership for men increased from 36% in 2019, 41% in 2020 to 49% in 2021, as per the Mobile Gender Gap 2022 report released by the GSMA. However, women’s smartphone use is yet to catch up with men’s: smartphone ownership was 14% in 2019, 25% in 2020 and 26% in 2021. Only 30% of adult women used mobile internet in 2020, a figure which did not change in the following year. Male users of mobile internet grew from 45% in 2020 to 51% in 2021, according to the report.

Hybrid work

Padma Shri award-winning Phulkari artist 65-year-old Lajwanti Kaur still uses pen and paper to design her creations. She is aware that from designing to payments, the mobile phone can do it all, but said, “Mai to 5 class padhi hun. Isko kaise istemal karungi [I have studied only till Class V, how will I use it]?”

Padma Shri award winner Lajwanti Kaur works on a sari at her shop in Dilli Haat in New Delhi. As she ages, Kaur is finding it harder to travel and sell her wares at exhibitions around the country, but she is uncomfortable using online platforms as she thinks middlemen will pocket the bulk of her profits. Credit: Nushaiba Iqbal

Kaur is also a teacher and sources embroidered clothes for her store in Delhi from her students, all of whom learn the craft without the help of any digital device. Her sales are made from the Delhi store or at exhibitions which requires her to travel – a task that is becoming increasingly difficult for her as she grows older. She is against expanding her business online because she fears middlemen will exploit her workers and pocket the bulk of her profits.

Online platforms like Amazon and Etsy that sell crafts provide women with benefits but their policies are not always transparent, said Dewan. “E-commerce provides some women the flexibility to generate an income while also tending to their domestic responsibilities. It can also enable them to reach a wider market. But how do these women drive traffic to their specific shop or products when there are so many competitors? And without exploitation?” she questioned.

Women’s businesses remain confined to low-technology fields like food and garments, according to Nikore, and they are more likely to receive funding from self-help groups or the National Rural Livelihoods Mission.

Hybrid work, which requires phones or laptops along with digital literacy, could have been a game changer for women. “From a social norms perspective, hybrid work is so suitable for women. If you can’t let them go out of the house, they can still find a job and be a part of something. However, in such a scenario, if their digital skills are less-than-advanced, they will not be able to take those jobs,” said Nikore.

With payments, inventory management and marketing going digital, new jobs were also created. However, women are slow to take up these jobs. “We have met students from universities in Delhi who cannot make powerpoint presentations, so one can only imagine the condition in rural areas,” added Nikore.

The future

In the developed world, female workers in low-skill clerical, service and sales jobs are at the risk of being replaced by automation, according to the 2018 Gender, Technology and the Future of Work report by the International Monetary Fund.

Increasing use of automation will give rise to a new class of jobs that require a different set of skills, according to Mitra of Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy. These new jobs will be skill-intensive. There will have to be proper skill development programmes targeted to women to be able to get these jobs, added Mitra.

“If not all women, at least those under the age of 30 need to become digitally native. It is difficult for them to acquire new skills on their own given the severe time poverty they face,” said Nikore.

Women in India spend 299 minutes, or nearly five hours a day, on unpaid domestic work – three times more than the 97 minutes, or just over an hour and half, by men – finds the 2019 Time-Use Survey. This leaves women with little time for learning on their own, and for paid work outside the home.

Digital literacy, Nikore stressed, needs to become one of the priorities of policymakers just like ending poverty and hunger.

But for digital literacy, there also has to be basic literacy. The literacy rate for men is higher than that for women: In 2011, 82% of Indian men were literate compared to 65% of women, as per the Census.

“Everyone needs basic education and digital literacy to be able to use the internet. For instance, even Facebook is difficult to use for a woman who can’t read. Women’s access to technology and digital literacy is more restricted than men,” Dewan said.

To address the low level of digital literacy in India, the government launched the Pradhan Mantri Digital Saksharta Abhiyan in 2015 and the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan in 2017. The programmes aim to provide basic digital literacy to one member of every household in the country.

More than 40 million candidates have been certified by Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan and 11 million candidates have been trained under the National Digital Literacy Mission. But these programmes are not exclusively targeted at women, and the gap between male and female users of mobile internet was at 41% in 2021.

Private initiatives to promote digital literacy among women include Initiative to What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy’s Haqdarshak programme, that has trained 25,576 women across 24 states on the use of mobile internet to assist with tasks such as applying for a PAN card, enrolling in government schemes like National Rural Livelihood Mission, Pradhan Mantri Rashtriya Swastha Bima Yojana and Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana and avail of food subsidies under the National Food Security Act. The total financial worth of this access is around Rs 4000 crore, Initiative to What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy estimates.

WhatsApp for business

Puja Devi from Khooti near Ranchi in Jharkhand goes against the predominant narrative. The 26-year-old is equally, if not more, involved in the functioning of her tent shop business as her husband Mahesh Kumar Mahto.

The tent shop has been stocking tents and orchestra instruments available on hire since 2017. In the beginning, Puja would personally trek to the houses of her customers to ensure that her tent shop was meeting their requirements. Each time she received an order, she would call her four employees to let them know what item was required and where it was to be delivered.

But in 2019, Puja joined a basic digital literacy course at Digital Empowerment Foundation’s Digital Sarthak programme, a project funded by United States Agency for International Development for increasing the digital capacity of women.

Ever since, Puja’s customer outreach programme has been conducted over WhatsApp, Facebook and Telegram. When she receives an order, a WhatsApp group chat lets her employees know and they deliver the goods from the warehouse to the customer, leaving her free to scope out more business.

There was some reluctance initially amongst the villagers to allow the girls to join her training programme, said Sarita Devi, the Digital Empowerment Foundation district coordinator for Khooti who trained Puja and others.

“During the Covid-19 lockdown, parents had to give their daughters phones to keep up with studies so now they will use it [for other things],” she told IndiaSpend, speaking in Hindi. The hope, she added, was for these newly digital-literate girls to train others who can then benefit from internet access.

For Puja, digital literacy has translated into higher earnings, from Rs 1-Rs 2 lakh a year in the pre-digital era, to Rs 4 lakh, she said. With her savings, she recently bought a car.

Business has expanded all the way up to Ranchi, added Sarita who joined the call after Puja had to leave following a network disruption. The disruption is a problem they face all too frequently. Puja is yet to try out the payments apps but Sarita is happy with the progress she has made.

“She used to be shy and hardly ever spoke, now she is more confident,” Sarita said.

* Name concealed on request.

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.