LIVE FROM GSMA MOBILE 360 INDIA: India’s top three mobile operators should use their influence over their vast network of retail outlets to pressure them to make the sales process more female friendly and reduce the wide gender gap in mobile phone ownership.

GSMA research shows that women in India are estimated to be 36 per cent less likely to own a mobile than men.

The majority of the 1.8 million retail stores that sell telecoms services are common to Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India and Idea Cellular.

“If we are collectively employing millions of people whose livelihood depends on telcos, we should be able to influence them a lot more, a lot harder and a lot quicker,” said Harmeen Mehta from Airtel. “We just need to pool our resources together. It’s not a battle anyone should fight individually.”

She said retailer mindset will change, because one thing they understand is the power of money. And as the female category expands, they will benefit from the growth.

Sara Chamberlain, BBC Media Action, suggested that the retail franchises be required to commit to a code of conduct on how they deal with women customers.

“Just mentioning the desire to connect the other half of the population adds a business objective. Even if that is just communicated to the retailers clearly, it would have a huge impact because at the moment gender is not on their radar at all,” Chamberlain said.

They probably are unaware they are excluding 50 per cent of the potential subscriber base, she said.

Pushpendra Singh, from Telenor India, said it starts with education, which is why it has launched retail outlets that have only female representatives. “We’ve seen a radical shift in the footfalls that come in, as women now feel very comfortable coming into the stores, compared to when they were served by males.”

About 400 of its 2,000 odd stores in the six regions it operates in are ‘women only’ outlets.

Singh said it has also introduced training on basic digital education and financial inclusion. He said its inclusion efforts have helping boost loyalty and reduce churn.

Simple obstacles
The panelists pointed to simple requirements, such as formal ID and proof of address, as significant barriers, since most women don’t have a drivers licence or their names on property or rental agreements.

Another cultural obstacle is the thinking that a woman will use a phone for entertainment or other non-productive activities. Chamberlain said the government needs to highlight the life-impacting services that mobile access can generate.

Airtel’s Mehta insisted that it goes beyond education, noting that more than 80 per cent of the phones women own are hand-me-downs. Surveys have shown that women highly value dignity and don’t want to be intimidated if they say something that is technically wrong when buying a SIM or phone.

“This is not an Airtel problem, it’s an industry problem. Far more of a cultural change has to come. In the urban world, the trend is very much changing, but have we really made a meaningful difference in rural India? We will preserve what’s right and change what’s wrong,” she said, referring to its inclusion initiatives.

Mehta said that as a country “we have a long way to go”.