woman bending over computer

Platform-based commerce continues to increase our 'flexible' and 'responsive' labour force. New research suggests that the gig economy reflects existing inequalities in the workforce.


While it might be expected that sharing platforms such as Uber would be the great equalizer in terms of gender pay gaps, male Uber drivers earn about 7% more than women. This is partly to do with the male tendency to drive faster (thus earning more quickly), but also to do with willingness to drive in certain areas and at certain times - choices bound by gendered perceptions of safety. And, as you may have noticed, the great majority of Uber drivers are men anyway. 

In the richer countries there are far more men than women in the gig economy. Men are also more visible as they dominate the transportation platforms. Women are more likely to be found in cleaning and other household duties. Again this reflects the norms of wider society - women mostly do the cleaning, either at home or at work, where 85% of all cleaners are women.

Globally, it is usually the poor and the marginalised who are found in the lowest paid forms of gig work.  Stemming from traditions of piece-work and casualisation, the flexibility so often claimed to be benefitting the worker is in fact employer driven. Employers are enabled to utilise labour only when it is required, resulting in more uncertainty and less security for the worker. The combination of poverty and anxiety can only result in an even cheaper labour force for the employer. 

Sharing platforms appear to have the same market share dynamics as do software companies  - a few survive and the rest disappear. Whether the resulting labour marketplace from the worker's point of view is framed as employer or market driven makes little difference: they will be scrambling for the same type of work at the lowest price the short-term on-demand market will bear. For highly skilled workers such as I.T. specialists this might be quite lucrative; for women cramming in a bit of cleaning work between parenting, not so.

Governments, lumbering along after more agile technologies as they tend to do, are slow to regulate or even tax the gig economy. The 'public', it appears, are all in favour - jobs once done by cabbies and tradies are so much cheaper now! But how many marginalised people on low incomes grab an Uber after nightclubbing, or use an air-tasker to spring clean their bathrooms? The wealthy get things cheaper while male drivers work for less and women cleaners probably work for the same (not much room for downward). The promise of new opportunities and better incomes for women are not yet apparent.

For more about the "own-account activities performed by women, often survivalist and characterised by high levels of precariousness, [which] are a far cry from the growth oriented, independent enterprises often idealised in women’s entrepreneurship discourse" see this Gender and the gig economy report by Abigail Hunt, Emma Samman and published this week on APO.