Women & the Gig Economy: Flexibility in a Vacuum Just Isn’t Enough

Published May 27th, 2016 -  - 05.27.161


The percentage of women in the U.S. workforce has been dropping since 1999. Whether it’s due to the lack of paid leave and family friendly policies, or for other reasons entirely, each year, women decide the traditional workplace simply doesn’t fit their needs.

Enter the gig economy!  Service apps like Uber, AirBnB, or Postmates and online sales platforms like Etsy and Ebay advertise as a pro that their workers maintain complete independence over their schedules.  On its face, the gig economy seems like the perfect fix to the flexibility problem driving many women out of the workforce.  After all, women have been selling Mary Kay, Pampered Chef, and other products from home for years.  Can’t work 9-5?  Drive Uber whenever you have free time.  Childcare too expensive to work outside the home?  Rent out your spare bedroom on AirBnB.  The reality, however, is that a version of the gender gap persists even in the most modern “flexible work” arenas.

Although there is an ongoing debate about employment levels in the gig economy, one study suggests that about 1% of U.S. adults earned income via the sharing or gig economy in 2015, an increase since 2012, when the percentage was something like 0.1%.   Moreover, A TIME study found that 22% of Americans (45 million people), 40% of whom are women, have sold some kind of good or service on the gig-economy.  However, about half of workers say these gigs account for less than 20% of their income, and use the platforms to earn money when income dips or when they are in between jobs.  In many instances, they’ve traded the social safety net provided to most 9-5 employees for flexibility and independence.

“Wow, a girl driver!”

At the end of 2015, 19 percent of U.S. Uber drivers were women, compared to 14 percent in 2014.  Competitors Lyft and Sidecar have reported employing more than twice Uber’s proportion of female drivers – 30% and 40%, respectively — but have far fewer drivers.

After a series of sexist comments by the CEO, and a spate of assaults against female passengers, Uber announced a campaign to recruit one 1 million women drivers by 2020, citing benefits like flexibility, and the ability for drivers to “make money on their own terms.” UN Women backed out of the partnership after receiving criticism that Uber driver jobs were “precarious,” but Uber pushed forward.  On International Women’s Day in March, Uber announced that nearly 1 in 3 new drivers are women (the company did not provide data for how many women continued driving after trying the app out).

While Uber aims to cure the flexibility and work volume issues associated with taxis, the highly publicized attacks on both passengers and drivers and app’s relatively nonexistent safety mechanisms are certainly deterring women from what is already viewed as a dangerous profession (according to OSHA, taxi drivers are 20 times more likely to be murdered on the job than other workers).  In addition to female passengers being assaulted by male drivers, women drivers have reported horrifying accounts of sexual harassment by male passengers.  This, coupled with reports that men are using Uber’s lost and found feature to continue harassing female drivers after they have been dropped at their destination, is a pretty strong deterrent.  (As a sidenote, apps exclusively for female drivers and passengers, such as SheTaxis and She Rides, are facing scrutiny from regulators implying they may violate of federal and local sex-discrimination laws).

Additionally, female drivers are much more likely to drive part time and as a result make 34% less gross driving income than men.  Since drivers make the most money when Uber pricing surges (which, in many cases, is late night when people are coming to and from bars), given the safety concerns associated with drunk passengers and the lack of appropriate redress, women are much less likely to drive at these peak hours.  As a result, if women are mostly driving during the less lucrative daytime hours, they may have to spend more time on the road to make the same money as their male counterparts, potentially imposing the gender wage gap on to the Uber economy.

Etsy v.  Ebay

While safety concerns, a de facto wage gap, and the high start up cost of owning a car might disincentivize women from taking advantage of service related apps, selling online could be a safer option for women who want to dip into the gig-economy.  However, not even this corner of the sharing economy is free from gender imbalance.

While Ebay isn’t as new as other platforms, selling items online is the most common way Americans interface with the gig economy.  Women make up about 23% of the 25 million Ebay sellers and maintain complete flexibility.  However, according to a recent study, when selling identical, brand-new products on eBay, women make 80 cents for every dollar that men earn.  These findings hold even after controlling for the descriptions that appear in the sellers’ listings, customer reviews, and eliminating bargaining.  Essentially, simply based on usernames and profile photos, Seller_Bob will make $300 when selling a new iPhone, and Seller_Betty will make $240.

One small haven for women is the online vintage and handmade store Etsy, where the percentage of female to male sellers is flipped.  Out of 1.5 million Etsy sellers, 86% are women.  When compared to the fact that women only own 29% of U.S. small businesses, this is a pretty remarkable statistic (no study on the wage gap has been done on Etsy).  One major difference between Etsy and other apps that tout flexibility as their main selling point, is that 74% of Etsy sellers report being motivated to start their business because they want to do something they enjoy, rather than just looking for as a way to make extra cash.

Flexibility In a Vacuum Isn’t Enough

While flexibility is deeply needed to help keep women in the workforce, shifting women into a market where there is still a significant wage gap, where serious safety concerns pervade some of the popular apps, and where employers have shown a lack of desire to provide any benefits or safety net may not be as beneficial to women in the long run as one might hope.  We should continue to push gig-economy apps to be more than income gap fillers and to provide meaningful opportunities for women to have flexible, but fulfilling employment outside the traditional workplace.  Transferring workers to employee status, and thereby offering them the benefits and safety net afforded to employees, is a first step in this direction.

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