Bias in a simple SMS?

by | Nov 13, 2019 | ICT4D |

“If you send a disaster alert SMS message out to all the phone numbers of people in a community, how could that be gender biased?”

An honest question, asked with a learning posture. I am not a gender expert, but shared a few perspectives I know about.

The biggest challenge is often who has access to the device. From research done in the humanitarian space, we know male members of a household have greater access to devices than female members. Sometimes this is due to control. Sometimes this is because the device is seen as an important family asset and perceived to need to be kept physically secure. And sometimes due to a male carrying the phone on his person.

So the SMS goes to the phone and if that phone is almost always with a male, the message may not reach the females.

The words chosen in the SMS message can impact its effectiveness. We have learnt some phrases resonate better with males than females. And so our word choice matters.

In some contexts this is tied with literacy rates. And, unfortunately, linguistic literacy rates for girls and women is lower than boys and men. We are seeing similar patterns in digital literacy, which of course ratcheted up as the issues of linguistic literacy and access to devices combine.

And lastly, I wonder if there are issues of gender to explore in the design of the devices. Most of the people we work with in humanitarian contexts have simple phones. Have these phones been designed primarily by men? Have they had input by people living in these communities? by women? by girls? Would the phones look or feel different if they had? I don’t know, but I think it worth considering.

So while I am not an expert in gender, I think there are some insights to consider even when we are sending a ‘simple SMS disaster alert’. And this is gender, what would happen if we considered disability – physical and mental?

If going digital is not to increase inequality, then we must consider these (and more) perspectives.

The choice is ours.

Photo by Josh Appel

1 Comment

  1. Ashley Inselman

    Thought provoking, Amos!


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