While the gig economy has been celebrated by some commentators as a 'godsend' for women, the evidence base to support these claims remains limited. For the first time, this research critically explores the digital possibilities for female worker empowerment, improved work-life 'balance' and gender inclusive growth in the ‘gig economy’ (also called the 'sharing', ‘on-demand’ or ‘platform economy’) in the UK. This work was funded by a British Academy Mid Career Fellowship.
The project has been developed through in-depth interviews with 52 women across the UK whose everyday work-lives are effectively managed by robotic algorithms, through their use of over 20 different online work platforms (including Peopleperhour, UpWork, Taskrabbit, Fiverr, Freelancer, TimeEtc). The project offers important new insights into the gendered labour market dynamics of the gig economy, and moves beyond the focus of previous studies on public facing, male-dominated urban service platforms.
In sum, this project has demonstrated: the major motivations underpinning women's turn to online work platforms; the diversity of gig tasks in which women are involved; new work-family flexibilities versus ongoing struggles to juggle gig work and childcare; common problems of income precarity, wage theft and female online health and safety; gendered constraints on women's abilities to compete on gig work platforms; everyday coping strategies; and workers' recommendations to platform developers for positive change.
The project has also developed a photographic portfolio of over 100 powerful images of these women's home-work spaces (where much of the work of the gig economy is carried out), extended through a series of artist renderings which illustrate major themes identified through the research (including breast feeding during gig work, late night working in bed, parent-child relationships, and the emotional distress of being managed by an algorithm).
The research disrupts celebratory accounts of the online gig economy as a 'godsend', and shows how women's experiences of the platform economy vary spatially, between places with different industrial histories, labour market opportunities and urban infrastructures of care.