Designing Mobiles for Women: Why Pitting Mangos vs. Ice Cream Sandwiches Doesn’t Make Sense*

Photo Credit: GSMA mWomen Programme

Last month, Wayan Vota of ICT Works shared a thought-provoking blog post that struck a chord with me. He questioned the necessity of the GSMA mWomen Design Challenge given that an effective and simple approach to teaching women literacy with basic handsets had already been devised by the Jokko Initiative.

Wayan extolled the virtues of the the Jokko Initiative, and rightly so: This program for helping women in West Africa build awareness of their right to communicate along with their literacy skills is also my favorite mobile learning project. Tostan has a model that yielded funding-worthy results and I believe would be useful to scale.

However, to compare the Jokko Initiative to the GSMA mWomen Design Challenge is pitting mangos vs. ice cream sandwiches: GSMA’s mWomen Design Challenge seeks to improve usability of Android Ice Cream Sandwich-powered smartphones since “…the Android operating system offers several important advantages as a potential mobile operating platform for women in emerging markets. As of June 2012, Android represented 47% of developers’ primary platform 10 in Africa, as compared to mobile web (13%) and Apple’s iOS (13%),” (GSMA mWomen, 2012).

Additionally, statistics elsewhere project that increasingly affordable Android handsets will continue to spread in developing markets in Africa and Asia through 2015, and while there is no way to tell how many of these smartphone adoptees will be women, it can be presupposed that some of them will be. Learning how to use these phones is one step on the way to helping women harness the potential benefits of mobiles, including for educational purposes. Why not start looking forward for mobile designs that will benefit women who are smartphone users, since many signs suggest that there is a growing trend in ownership for this group?

Pitting mangos vs. ice cream sandwiches creates a false dichotomy that unnecessarily detracts from the push to help ensure that more women benefit from mobile phone uses for education and communication.
Women can benefit from the Tostan approach, but they may also benefit from mobile phone designs that are gender-sensitive since it could lead to women imagining even more novel educational uses.

In the dissertation for my Master’s program in ICT4D, I wrote the following about gender and social shaping of technology: “Wajcman (1991) contends that not only is technology shaped by users’ social contexts, but that gender is also a component of the social influence that people have on technology. For example, Cockburn and Ormrod (1993) tell how gendering of domestic technologies such as microwaves is an on-going process that does not end at the point of design or manufacturing. When piloting microwave design, engineers in Japan had to respond to women’s use of microwaves to thaw sushi, helping to create the defrost function (Cockburn & Ormrod, 1993). Users play a role in encoding their own gendered meanings on the technology as they appropriate it, and the example provided explains how this encoding can be in response to the users’ needs,” (Zelezny-Green, 2012).

Pitting mangos vs. ice cream sandwiches is an exercise in futility.The real question is who will be behind the winning design of the challenge? I take the position that if mobile technology is to be made easier for women to use, then it should be designed by or with women. Otherwise, the goal of making mobiles for women may not be met –- unarguably the greater missed opportunity as far as mangos and ice cream sandwiches are concerned.

Sources cited:

Wajcman, J. (1991). Feminism Confronts Technology. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Cockburn, C., & Ormrod, S. (1993). Gender and Technology in the Making. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

*Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I work for GSMA on the mEducation project. However, the views expressed here are wholly my own and are in no way meant to be representative of the views of the GSMA mWomen programme or their design challenge, or the GSMA mEducation project.



  1. January 10, 2013 / 4:54 am

    Thanks for engaging!

    My larger point in my post was a subtle jab at the seemingly timeless need for ever single organization to sponsor their own approach to a problem and the lack of recognition that others may have already developed an approach that can scale faster and better than investing in designing something new from scratch.

    There is only so much bandwidth/resources/time in the world and I wish we would spend more of it collaborating on approaches that already work rather than trying to find a new new thing. Not that I’m innocent of the charge myself, mind you.

    Oh and by the way, you may want to update your About section. I don’t think this is current: “Eventually, I wish to work for an international organization…”

  2. admin
    January 11, 2013 / 9:46 am

    Hi Wayan! Thanks so much for your comment. I think you have a valid point about people sponsoring their own approach, however here I think there is good potential to sponsor a NEW and possibly even more effective approach, especially if it is a case of “for us, by us” where the design team is concerned.

    If it were the same thing, just repackaged, I would agree with you completely but there are significant differences not only for the approach but also the platform that I think are meritorious in terms of the potential to address the challenges at hand. Certainly the Jokko Initiative/Tostan approach works on basic handsets, but what is the equivalent for smartphones? I don’t think it is the same one and never could be based on what is possible for people to do with the technology.

    And thank you for your suggestion, lol. I haven’t changed it, only because I am not presently in a role where I get to inform policy. Or am I?! 😉

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