Approximately 1.2 billion underserved women are a great opportunity for the mobile industry to distinguish itself.

By Carol Realini (Author, BANKRUPT: Why Banking is Broken. How it can be Transformed.)

When you look at the sea of people at Mobile World Congress – it is mostly men with a few scattered women in the crowd. So it is not surprising that this male dominated industry is missing out on a massive marketing opportunity – women.

Visa, Cherie Blair Foundation, GSMA and Bankable Frontier Association collaborated on primary research whose results were presented on Tuesday at the Mobile World Congress. They looked at getting women access to mobile phones and mobile financial services. The question I have is why was this held in a small seminar room instead of the large conference area. It was a much more important and interesting session than any of the keynotes so far.

It is not a surprise that women are not as connected as men in the world. This is definitely a mobile gender gap – 21% fewer women than men own a mobile phone in low- to middle-income countries. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the gap is estimated to be 23%; in the Middle East, 24% and in South Asia it rises to 37%. Lots of reasons – higher illiteracy, no access to energy, less money, sometimes the reason is simply their husbands don’t want them to have a phone. The result is a mobile phone gender gap estimated to be 300 million women in the developing world without access to this potentially empowering tool.

Why does Cherie Blair, wife of Tony Blair, care – and she cares a lot. She personally knows what technology has done for her. She contrasted her use of technology and Tony’s, saying he still is satisfied with an old Blackberry where she had a number of state-of-the-art devices including an iPad mini critical to her engagement in the world of politics and business. Simple put, it empowers her and she thinks it will empower “resource-poor” women to make a better life for themselves and their families.

Mobile World Congress is an amazing conference with so many people from around the world involved in mobile congregate in one place. Nonstop short meetings, tons of content, formal and informal networking. But the weakest part of the event is the large audience panels. The topics can be interesting, like the next billion keynote, but the actual presentations are weak. It is mostly top-level male executives promoting their latest marketing messages.

Mobile is transforming the planet. And these people are at the epicenter of what is happening. It is time for the discussions to be more in-depth and less self-serving. It is time for the key topics, like women’s access, to be center stage. Most panels are dominated by men, actually most panels are all men.

It is time for change. Mobile is too important. Apple distinguished itself as a powerful market force focusing on empowering consumers. They did an incredible job and ushered in the great era of smart phones.

Now half the world is women, and many of those women live in emerging markets and work hard everyday to support their families and micro-businesses. Those approximately 1.2 billion underserved women are a great opportunity for the mobile industry to distinguish itself. With focus and Apple-like consumer empowerment approaches, those women’s lives could be transformed. Mobile access, mobile finance, life empowering applications are all possible now.

And if the mobile industry focused on this, then it would not only be good business – it would be good for the world. But they would have to move this to center stage in the big tent, get some women on stage, and talk less about short-term market position issues, and more about their customers. In doing so, they would be following the lead of the great innovators, like Steve Jobs, and focus on customer empowerment, with a deep commitment to delivering value that delights women and empowers their life and work.

Cherie Blair Foundation, Visa, USAID, GSMA, Bankable Frontiers Association, Qtel – thank you for this research on women and access to mobile financial services.

But let’s up the bar – next year this needs to be center stage verses an interesting side show.

This post was originally posted at Carol Realini’s blog. Photo credit: Erik Hershman on Flickr.

About the guest blogger: Carol Realini is a serial entrepreneur, board member and author. Until recently, she was Executive Chairman and founder of leading global mobile banking and payment provider Obopay. She has presented to world business and political leaders at events including those hosted by the U.S. State Department, World Economic Forum and Gates Foundation. Carol mentors entrepreneurs providing wisdom and lessons learned from her four successful startup experiences. Follow her on Twitter at @carolrealini.