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Women in the gig economy: Mileage or mere facade?

by Saumya Seth and Sanya Seth

Being able to make one’s own decisions is one of the many options that the digital world offers. The gig economy refers to those individuals who work part-time or on a project-by-project basis under their own set of working conditions. Unfortunately, despite how ornate the concept may appear, some of its aspects have been hidden by the concept’s extravagant marketing, especially when it was intended to appeal to women who have been neglecting their jobs because of their obligations to their families. As a result, it is vital to determine whether taking up jobs in the gig economy is a viable option for facilitating employment prospects for females on crowd working platforms, both skilled and unskilled.

The globe yearns for a glimpse of optimism to escape the precarity and overwhelming pressure in the labor market. Being your own employer is viewed as a terrific safety net during challenging times like these. The fact that businesses find it to be cost-effective and can afford it, that job searchers may honor many contracts at once, and that both employers and employees are free to choose their own working hours to contribute to its success. Though largely acknowledged as the booming solution to the labor market’s challenges, the effect evaluation of the “gig economy” is a dialectical idea. Living in the 21st century, a time of tremendous technological advancement ensures a reasonable level of exposure to the digital world which coexists with our physical world and occasionally peeks into the quotidian. This inescapable interplay between the physical and the digital is also true of the gig economy. The focus of this article is the digital gig economy, also called the digital platform economy, which is pertinent to be reckoned with in the post-pandemic world. In order to assess the benefits that women receive from the innovative economic and professional environment that is shaping employment patterns in the labor market today, this essay brings forth the discourse regarding the strength of their positive externalities as opposed to the enormous effect of their negative externalities. 

When we place these progressive ideas in the context of a nation like India, we sometimes succumb to the impression that we are still far from realizing the benefits of digitalization. Particularly when the studied population is female. These perceptions stem from the fact that data about the low literacy rate among women is mirrored in the area of digital literacy too. The gendered digital divide is explicated by the disadvantageous position secured by women in the rural-urban and intra-household dynamic across income factions. In a nation that ranks 73 out of 120 nations in the internet literacy index, women face a lack of access to mobile phones and the internet. They are 15% less likely than men to become digitally literate. As COVID-19 navigated its way through the globe, it surely contributed to an escalation in the adoption of digital technologies. A glimmer of optimism is provided by the trend of rising literacy rates, particularly in the country’s metropolitan regions, but this tendency has not yet reached their rural counterparts. While the aforementioned information suggests that the digital gig economy is

mostly inaccessible to rural women and that only a small percentage of urban women may benefit from it, this conclusion is, to put it mildly, speculative. 

The credit goes to the welcoming nature of the digital platform economy, as it offers opportunities for women with different degrees of digital proficiency. The plum roles call for women with advanced abilities in fields like software engineering, coding, digital marketing, etc., and are mostly filled by women with professional degrees and considerable work experience. The crowd-working platforms in the gig economy cater to another segment of the female population that does not necessitate specialized knowledge or skills since they divide more challenging activities into smaller groups of human intelligence tasks. Thus, assigning remote employees microwork like picture categorization and data input, for which the prerequisites are limited to basic computer and mathematical skills. Due to their educational background, some women who would typically only be able to work as housekeepers now have the option to pursue another career. The digital gig economy provides women with employment options and serves as a gateway into the formal economy, although as independent contractors rather than as employees. 

The goal of the digital platform economy is to empower and liberate women through the diversity of employment options and resulting independence in task completion. Additionally, due to greater awareness of women’s education and technological improvements, the hitherto uncommon tendency of women to enter vocational fields after higher education has become a commonplace thought. 

But it is indeed erroneous to believe that women’s professional lives in the gig economy are as rosy as they sound. Ironically, technical advancements are also posing barriers because women’s employment in skilled positions has lagged behind the rising trend of female employment. The machine learning-based algorithms used for sorting applicants’ job applications are at fault for the gender bias that is still evident in employment selection and work delegation, not the employers.() These computer programs analyze and recreate past data and patterns of an organization’s procedures. Male employees used to make up a larger percentage of the workforce than female employers did in the past- 86.6% male employees in 1948. The gender prejudice persisted because the algorithms unintentionally sorted applications in the same way. Another illustration of how limiting machine learning algorithms may be is their interference with work-delegation. For instance, the algorithms used by the transportation business uber, are based on previously collected customer rating data and rider preferences. It is noteworthy that the corporation has just lately begun recruiting female drivers. As a result, the program is unable to submit sufficient ride requests to female drivers due to the numerous positive reviews and trip data of male drivers. As a result, female drivers are under-unemployed and receive uneven pay. 

To boot, this coincidental yet vile nature of technology leads to “social congestion of women”, especially when it’s about providing them with decent employment opportunities. As an upshot,

women are forced to take on any job that presents itself. Thus women’s access to the opportunities given by the digital gig economy remains restricted to more informal, casual work. Such jobs rely on mechanical, repetitive, and overly simplified tasks that impede women’s advancement by making their lives monotonous and secluded, rather than allowing for co-learning and upskilling in the workplace. 

Even if the potential and inherent difficulties have been fully covered, things now begin to turn farcical. The “crowd work” platforms, which are frequently praised for being freely accessible with no training and enabling women to enter the job market, go bad. This is due to the significant labor casualization and commodification that these diverse jobs foster. Gig platforms propose the notion of a digital platform acting as a regulatory intermediary, single-handedly mediating between the market’s three most important coordination, informational, and efficiency-related activities. Since this entails a virtual workplace with the involvement of a self-centered and individual output based contractor, the alienation of workers is detrimental to their ability to exercise their workplace rights. It leaves them with fewer opportunities to use their agency, autonomy, and weakens their negotiating power. Due to the exclusion from the employer’s benefits and safeguards, these conditions put women at risk of exploitation. 

However, the aforementioned claim that there are no social security benefits may be debunked, and it would be vital to draw attention to the frequently overlooked efforts made by companies today to ameliorate the condition of women. The fact that many economic institutions delegating small tasks do consider the precarity and vulnerability that women face while working in non-decent and informal employment systems and thus give female employees opportunities to access condition-based social security benefits is the least taken into consideration. This assertion can be substantiated by the following example: 

A unique incentive program was designed by The Urban Company (formerly Urban Clap), a local services expert, specifically for its female workers. It provides conditional social security benefits to its female employees. For instance, if they accomplish 30 activities each month, they are eligible for short-term health insurance coverage. Additionally, they become “Gold Partners” and are eligible for life insurance coverage of up to Rs. 3 lakhs as well as 40 free calls to contact centers run by urban businesses if they reach the monthly target of 60 jobs (whereas others are entitled to just 15 free calls). 

Undoubtedly, meeting such rigorous requirements to outperform the coworkers and qualify for the perks requires unwavering dedication in the form of longer working hours, higher productivity within the budget allocated, and even deference to outlandish requests from employers and clients. Additionally, this USP, or saving grace, of the gig economy is further underlined by employers’ micromanagement of female employees and their employment of authoritarian management practices via digital platforms. Employers use the concept of “Digital Taylorism,” in which they frequently watch employees’ time and take screenshots of their computers that are time-stamped, to ensure that remote workers are following instructions.

Employees are compelled to overcommit and work longer hours as a result of this albatross hanging over their heads because they are worried about falling behind their peers and losing out on income and social security benefits. 

The preceding discussion of platform companies’ wage-setting and human resources policies, as well as their methods for dealing with high employee turnover and complaints of unfair treatment, assists us to conjecture that there are several limits to the gig economy’s growth, and some of these may even prove to be existential threats. Thus, research on topics like gig-based labor market structure, employment relations, and whether involvement in such an economy actually provides women with a path into more traditional employment is necessary given that the gig economy is unavoidably one of the ways that work will be done in the future.

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