June 1 2021
The gig economy has come to occupy a prominent place on newspaper front pages and in academic articles alike. A handful of arguments crop up time and time again in these discussions – from strengthening regulation, to addressing the misclassification of workers – but issues of gender inequality continue to be overlooked. The experience of women in the gig economy, we might suggest, has yet to be fully considered.
In 2017, it was estimated that 31% of UK gig workers, approximately 350,000 individuals, were women: a figure we can expect to significantly increase under current projections. As the sector grows, strategies to secure gender equality for its workforce therefore ought to be at the forefront of research and policy. Future work will have to build on two areas that repeatedly emerge within the limited treatment of the topic to date: first, occupational segregation, and second, the misleading concept of flexibility that draws workers – and especially women – into gig work. In this post, I take a closer look at each of these areas as a starting point for much-needed further research into the relationship between gender and the gig economy.
The existence of gendered occupational segregation in both offline ‘on-demand’ work and online ‘crowd work’ segments of the gig economy is well established. Offline, women are more likely to take on domestic roles such as cleaning and caring, whilst men tend to find employment in transport and delivery services. Online, women are more commonly found in writing and translation jobs, whereas men more frequently work in specialist technical roles. There are a few possible reasons for this divide, from customer discrimination, where buyers are less likely to choose women for stereotypically masculinized tasks and roles, to the times and hours that women are willing and available to work. For example, Uber’s rates pay best during weekends and nights, when many women may have childcare responsibilities or harbour concerns about their personal safety. Platforms need to take basic steps to address these issues: whether through hiding the gender of workers from customers to avoid bias, introducing minimum wage policies, or addressing underlying issues like safety risks that may deter women from specific jobs.
Flexibility in the gig economy
Flexibility is often named as one of the main factors that attracts people to work in the gig economy, and women are even more likely than men to say they do gig work for scheduling reasons. The flexible work schedules boasted by gig platforms are sometimes seen as a significant benefit to women, who may particularly need to balance familial caring responsibilities with paid work. This more agile way of working sets gig work apart from ‘typical’ workplace models. The potential advantages of this flexibility mean that women can meet caregiving demands whilst maintaining their skills and earning income.
The apparent attractiveness of gig economy work reveals the real need for increased flexibility in the workplace more generally. However, the sector’s purported flexibility needs to be seen within the context of the material realities of gig work, including low pay and demanding, irregular work schedules. These unpredictable shift patterns lead gig workers to be constantly on call, presenting major difficulties for workers who need to arrange childcare around their shift patterns. Income is also unreliable, with the type and number of jobs varying from week to week, increasing workers’ financial stress.
‘Flexibility’ in the gig economy has typically also been accompanied by another significant penalty. This is the classification of platform workers as ‘self-employed’, which leaves them with few of the benefits that come with workers’ rights such as sick or holiday pay, which falls particularly hard on women who may need to care for children and relatives. ‘Self-employed’ workers also miss out on other crucial benefits such as statutory maternity pay. These feelings of insecurity that result from promised flexibility and freedom expose the harsher side of the contemporary gig economy. Recently, widespread legal challenges to the independent contractor model have therefore sprung up across Europe, including Uber’s high profile lost appeal to the UK’s Supreme Court, who upheld a ruling that drivers ought to be treated as workers rather than independent contractors.
Here, I have highlighted two of the main issues concerning gender in the gig economy – but there remains far more to be investigated. If we are to piece together a fuller picture of gender inequality in the sector, then we urgently need to address this deficiency compared to other female-dominated regions of the economy.
Given the dominance of companies such as Uber and Deliveroo in discussions of the gig economy, it might be surprising to find out that male-dominated driving and delivery services only make up 16% of its activity. The lack of substantial studies into inherent biases within the gig economy and areas of the sector dominated by women therefore suggests that gender discrimination is replicated at the level of research. Given its acute susceptibility to the Covid pandemic, now is an even more acutely salient time to push for further investigation into female-dominated gig work. Workers within care, domestic, and beauty services have often been overlooked, even though they have frequently been unable to work because of their jobs’ reliance on close contact, or requirements to care for family members.
Greater research is hence urgently needed not only to explore where the gig economy is succeeding for women (such as flexibility and low barriers to entry) but also importantly where it is failing (such as around gendered occupational segregation and financial stress). From what we know to date, gender inequalities pervade gig work: and if we are to build a fairer gig economy that works for all genders, they cannot be ignored.
- Balaram, Brhmie, Josie Warden, and Fabian Wallace-Stephens (2017). ‘Good Gigs: A Fairer Future for the UK’s Gig Economy’, RSA, 2017.
- Churchill, Brendan and Lyn Craig (2019). ‘Gender in the Gig Economy: Men and Women Using Digital Platforms to Secure Work in Australia’, Journal of Sociology 55(4): 741–61, https://doi.org/10.1177/1440783319894060.
- Galperin, Hernan. (2019). ‘“This Gig Is Not for Women”: Gender Stereotyping in Online Hiring’, Social Science Computer Review, 1–19, https://doi.org/10.1177/0894439319895757
- Bérastégui, Pierre. (2021) ‘Exposure to Psychosocial Risk Factors in the Gig Economy: A Systematic Review’, TUI, The European Trade Union Institute, https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3770016.
Erica is a doctoral researcher investigating spoken word poetry communities in London, their use of digital media, and the role inclusion plays within these communities. As part of her partnership with Autonomy, Erica is assisting the wide-ranging research that drives the Feminist Futures Programme.