Work in the platform economy – or the ‘gig economy’ – is on the rise. The EU’s platform economy, which ranges from food delivery and taxi services to platforms where workers perform multiple tasks online, grew almost fivefold between 2016 and 2021.
Some commentators and policymakers portray platform work as beneficial for workers because it offers flexibility and autonomy when scheduling their work. This could be seen as especially advantageous for women, who are still the ones primarily responsible for domestic and care responsibilities in many countries. According to this line of argument, digital labour platforms, seen as a ‘gender-blind’ online environment, should encourage female labour market participation and gender equality.
These arguments fall short, however. Digital labour platforms are a novel way of organising working relationships but they facilitate transactions between real world individuals and are built using real world data – a world that is full of biases. As things stand, there is no reason to believe that digital labour platforms will advance gender equality. But all hope is not lost and improvements can – and should – be made.
Digital labour platforms do not subvert gender inequality – they merely replicate it
Work in the digital labour economy mirrors existing inequalities within the traditional labour market, including those related to gender. Numerous studies have demonstrated that the gender wage gap persists on digital labour platforms. And across the platform economy, women work in jobs traditionally seen as ‘feminine’, such as teaching and domestic services.
In fact, online marketplaces may reinforce gender stereotypes. In an online environment with limited information and time, employers may well resort to stereotypes when making decisions – like hiring women for writing and translation work but not for software design.
And what about that promise of flexibility? It’s true that women are more likely than men to work on platforms because they can combine it with caring responsibilities. But for women working in the platform economy, having children is demonstrably associated with lower participation in work, earnings and working hours.
On the flipside, even where men and women spend similar time working in the regular economy and on platforms, women still spend more time on childcare and domestic work.
So even if platforms enable more flexible work for women, they do nothing to challenge the underlying inequalities and gender roles surrounding women’s role as primary caregivers. Rather, women simply end up pulling a ‘double shift’ – working on platforms for additional income, yet still being primarily responsible for picking the kids up from school, preparing dinner and doing the laundry.
Algorithms needs to be gender-sensitive, not gender-blind
Algorithms play a key role in managing digital labour platforms. In many cases, they govern the allocation of tasks to workers. At first glance, this practice appears gender neutral, but it may well lead to the reinforcement of gender biases.
For example, algorithms often rank and assign tasks to people working on digital labour platforms using customer ratings. Yet evidence shows that clients give women systematically lower ratings than men, a pattern of gender discrimination that is strengthened through algorithmic penalties for lower-ranked workers.
What’s more, in many cases, the much-vaunted flexibility is illusory. Workers frequently have little choice over scheduling shifts and can be penalised by algorithms for rejecting assignments, often without recourse to intermediation. This is particularly disadvantageous for women who shoulder caring responsibilities alongside work, and thus may have less flexibility in terms of their working hours. A ‘gender-blind’ algorithm that does not factor in structural differences in outside responsibilities actually ends up reinforcing gender inequality.
Taking action for gender equality in the platform economy
If digital labour platforms are truly to advance a more inclusive labour market, improving working conditions on these platforms is the first step to take.
For many platform workers, working conditions remain precarious and insecure. Earnings are variable and often low. Platform workers spend much time on unpaid work and have little access to social protection, frequently being classified as self-employed.
The proposed EU directive on platform work seeks to address this by introducing a rebuttable presumption of employment for platform workers. This means they would have employment rights and would be able to access social protection systems.
Improved working conditions on platforms will benefit everyone working on and through them, but especially women, who have a lower level of work intensity and less additional outside income than male platform workers, increasing the potential for vulnerability and exploitation. The regulation of platform workers’ employment status is hotly debated within the EU institutions, however. It remains to be seen whether the final version of the directive will adequately address potential misclassification.
Beyond the issue of employment status, the role of algorithms needs to be addressed. Alongside the proposed platform work directive, which introduces regulation on the transparency and accountability of algorithms, the proposed AI Act sets out strict obligations for AI systems classified as high risk, including systems for employment and the management of workers.
Yet not all potentially gender-discriminatory AI applications are likely to be covered by the AI Act. But on top of regulation, companies can also be proactive and champion anti-discriminatory practices in the online labour economy, for instance by explicitly designing algorithms in a gender-sensitive way.
Digital labour platforms are certainly no silver bullet for ‘fixing’ gender inequality. At the moment, they are more likely to contribute to making existing imbalances worse. They may well be part of a more gender-equal labour market in the future – but this requires taking regulatory action now to improve working conditions and social security, address discrimination and increase transparency.
To mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, this Expert Commentary is part of a week-long series to highlight the insights and expertise of some of our most talented young female researchers.