[Column] Nancy Kiarie: Women in the digital gig economy
The world is increasingly going digital and technology that could only be imagined a decade ago is now reality. The impact of innovation has been seen across all sectors of the economy including health, education, financial services, hospitality and transport, among others. Innovation has had significant impact in encouraging women’s participation delivery of services enabled by technology platforms.
The gig economy is described as an ecosystem that facilitates workers who are either employed or unemployed to earn income through working on part-time jobs referred to as ‘gigs’. The digital gig economy in Africa is quickly gaining prominence and enhancing opportunities for the youth and women. Research ICT Africa estimates that by the end of 2018, there were 277 unique digital platforms in Africa alone serving close to 5 million gig workers.
Some digital platforms operate internationally such as Airbnb, Uber, Jumia serving multiple markets, while other are more localized and targeted towards their own markets such as Sendy and Lynk in Kenya, Dropping in Ghana, Gokada in Nigeria, among others.
Gender dynamics in the gig economy
Some of MSC’s recent research work in Kenya indicates increasing participation of women especially in the blue-collar digital gig economy. Emerging platforms are enabling women to take up gig work and use their time more effectively. The flexibility of gig work enables women to offer services they are skilled at, and schedule their work according to their availability.
However, we observed that women were more involved in traditionally female-oriented jobs such as hair-dressing, beauty, and house-keeping. Women take on these roles because of their familiarity in that line of work, their risk-averse nature, as well as the dictates of societal norms. Men are more involved in jobs such as delivery, construction, driving and home repairs.
Some key factors that motivating women to take up gig work include:
- The need for additional income,
- Freedom to take their own decisions and be independent,
- Building a bright future for family and household,
- Creating self-identity and carving a social status,
- The need to work part time around other family obligations, and
- Encouragement from the success stories of their peers.
Behavioral analysis of gig workers is revealing that there are significant differences between the motivations for women becoming gig workers as opposed to men. In the case of men, the key factors enabling them to succeed in gig work include earning subsistent income, building self-wealth, championing innovation and conquering risk. This nature arguably - and inequitably - predisposes men to navigating gig work on digital platforms in a more lucrative manner. We have examined some of the reasons for the gender gap and would like to propose some measures to overcome the discrepancy.
Women face unique challenges when using digital gig platforms to source for work and to market their products and services. In many emerging economies, ownership of digital devices that enable access to gig platforms is historically uneven between men and women. Gig platforms in Kenya such as Littlecab, a ride-hailing service or Sendy, an errands company, demand 24-hour availability to offer services. Women’s availability on digital gig platforms that require physical presence is restricted due to family and domestic demands.
Worker’s ratings on the platforms are partially informed by the number of hours worked on most platform. This, in turn, negatively impacts their presumed relative level of capability. Consequently, on platforms that rely on user ratings that include platform experience to assign job opportunities, women often lose out.
Female gig workers, as well as customers, also face increased security risks performing work that requires their physical presence. For example, female customers express higher security concerns when hailing taxis over digital platforms. Female workers also report of instances of sexual harassment and thus are less willing to serve male customers especially at odd hours of the day. In an interview with a female worker involved in offering beauty and wellness services, she indicated that ‘unwarranted demands’ from men had driven her to no longer accept work requests from male customers. In a very few cases, the reverse is also true for male workers who provide services that are traditionally expected to be performed by women.
As in the workplace, women on these platforms struggle to earn equitably. Women are observed to be more flexible in pricing and are more susceptible to being underpaid on gig platforms (including in white-collar gig-work). This sometimes goes to the extent not covering the costs they incur to deliver the services. As a consequence, women gig workers who charge prices commensurate with men for their services often get less business on digital platforms. A system where women charge less than their male counterparts leads to devaluation of the services they offer.
To deal with some of these challenges, female platform workers do not get sufficient work or drop out from participation on digital gig platforms.
So how do we encourage female participation in the gig economy?
There are different measures that can be explored to address these challenges and encourage continued participation of women. Some platform owners have been proactive in putting in place measures to resolve these issues.
To account for intermittent availability of female workers, a system that allows workers to indicate when they are available, so that the platform does not automatically discriminate women on ratings when they are not available, could limit the negative assumptions based on the level of platform experience of female workers.
Some platform owners provide an option for users and workers to choose who they would like to serve or receive services from. For example, bolt, a taxi hailing app in several countries in Africa, allows female customers to choose female drivers and vice versa. AnNisa is an exclusively female taxi hailing platform, run by women, and for women only.
Some platform owners have implemented standard pricing for specific services in order to ensure the workers get adequate pay for their work. Platform owners could also put in place algorithms that encourage uniform pricing and let users simply choose a gig worker based on their respective ratings. Gig platforms should explore measures through which customers can provide quality of service reviews that are used to rate workers on the platform. Higher ratings should allow workers justify higher pricing, rather than ascribe to standard platform pricing.
Women empowerment through increased female participation in the gig economy
Participation of women in the digital gig economy not only enhances employment opportunities and provides a source of income, it also helps to create a digital footprint of their work, and financial records in several instances. This in turn provides necessary data that could be used by financial institutions to design the right products and services to enhance women’s financial management and risk mitigation. When women are financially independent, there is enhanced decision-making power which boosts women’s economic empowerment.
We have a way to go to harness the gig economy for good.