Report on Women in the Cell Phone Industry

by Padmini Parthasarathy

Around the world today, more people have cellphones than toilets. In the US, studies have shown that women and minorities are the biggest users of mobile devices.

Access to mobile devices has actually contributed to huge gains in gender equality all over the world. It is also worth noting that the sector is filthy rich with huge profit margins.

A 2015 study by the GSMA (an association of mobile operators), conducted in partnership with USAID, concluded, “Mobile technology is a powerful tool. It transcends geographies, cultures, and socio-economic status and offers wide-ranging benefits to women and society. Mobile phones help women feel safer and more connected, save time, and enable access to key services such as mobile money and health information.”

So the industry, which is worth 1.56 trillion dollars globally, warrants some serious scrutiny.

How do tech manufacturers treat the multitudes of women who use their product and stand to gain the most from it? The team at Buy Up Index crunched the numbers. We took into account any representation in upper management and board seats, employee benefits and care, and treatment of the consumer to arrive at comprehensive rankings.

The biggest name companies all got As. Google takes the cake with a rating of 91 out of 100, with Apple and Microsoft following closely behind. On average, cell phone companies earned a B, due to lackluster leadership numbers and non-disclosed parental leave.

TAKING CHARGE

Only one company on our list had a female CEO. HTC’s Cher Wang co-founded the company in 1997 and is the CEO and a member of the board. In 2013, Wang said, “I strongly believe there should be a much greater role in technology for women, not only as users, but also as innovators, business owners, and industry leaders.”

Wang then put her money where her mouth was by announcing that HTC would be donating 100,000 tablets to women in Asia-Pacific countries, in the hopes that the technology could be a portal to science and technology education. Despite Wang’s leadership, the company has less than 16.6 percent female representation on its board and no publicly available information on its parental leave policies.

There’s been much recent talk on diversity in tech; women continue to bump up against the glass ceiling in this industry. About half the companies provide leadership programs geared specifically to women, but very few have encouraging numbers in upper management to show for the programs.

None of the companies on our list had more than 25 percent of women in their executive committees. For the few companies that disclosed the number of female managers within the company, not a single one broke 30 percent.

Besides problems with diversity, controversy still swirls around the manufacture of mobile devices and tablets. Many labor rights groups have taken issue with these companies, citing sweatshop conditions and the use of child labor.

KNOWING YOUR CUSTOMERS

Some of the Silicon Valley giants on our list are public about paid parental leave – Google takes the cake, offering 18 weeks of paid maternity leave and 12 weeks of paid paternity leave. Apple follows close behind with 16 and six, respectively. Check out our methodology here.

Generally speaking, companies with higher paid parental leave had more female board members and executives, were more likely to provide other programs for working mothers, such as on-site childcare, and showed a greater commitment to retaining and promoting their female employees.

TALKING TO CONSUMERS

When it comes to reaching their customers, cellphone companies do a better job overall than most other sectors. Some tech companies on our list leaned on tired, old tropes of female technological ineptitude or selfie-vanity as a marketing tactic. But in many cases, girl power was an advertising theme. We see women bucking off traditional, supporting, mothering roles, and instead climbing mountains and being the boss. In other sectors, this kind of powerful imagery is typically generated by companies with excellent women’s leadership and employee policies; interestingly, when it comes to cellphone makers, even those who fall down on those scores still communicate to women in gender-stereotype breaking ways.

About half of the companies on our list supported women philanthropically - with varying degrees of success and much directed to girls in STEM. Google counts $40M, and Apple just announced a $10M donation to NCWIT.

Microsoft is a big spender: it has given away a total of $119M to support women, with portions of that money going to “digigirlz” and “codess,” two organizations that empower young women to learn coding and make their mark in the tech world.

If tech is the future, then women need to get in the room. The power of our purses might change the face of cell phone companies - and not just selfie-technology.

Padmini Parthasarathy is a journalist based in New York, NY. She graduated from New York University with degrees in journalism, politics, and mathematics. Her work has appeared in The Times of India, Women 2.0, Upworthy, Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, Vitamin W, Washington Square News, and Mic.com. Her research has been featured in Quartz and in the Buy Up Index.

Image: Mike Licht of  NotionsCapital.com used under a creative commons license