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Unequal access: Gender and digitally-mediated work

Labour markets globally are characterized by pervasive gendered inequalities. Women are less likely to participate in paid work than men, and more likely to be under- and unemployed. Meanwhile, a ‘skills premium’ typically accrues to workers with skills perceived as more valuable, often those associated with men. While the knowledge base on the digital economy is not yet well developed, some evidence suggests that it is reinforcing existing gendered social divisions and enabling the “remaking of women into devalued workers”. Our focus here is on how gendered inequalities may impede access to digitally-mediated work, and how this differs relative to traditional work arrangements. We draw on our recent study of gendered experiences of the ‘on-demand’ economy in Kenya and in South Africa, whereby workers provided services to households (ranging from housekeeping to beauty supply to transport), mediated via Uber-like digital platforms.

Firstly, to join a platform, workers must meet registration criteria. These differ significantly between platforms and are subject to change – but often include having specific skills or experience, no criminal record, and professional or character references. This is not dissimilar from the requirements for engagement in the same sectors as ‘traditional’ work, except that critically, gig workers are more likely to need to provide certain assets for use in their work, such as a car for ride-hailing platforms, or upfront investments in airtime and materials such as cooking ingredients or beauty supplies. Such requirements are likely to affect women disproportionately given that worldwide, they are less likely than men to own productive assets or to be able to borrow money.

“[Y]es we get the jobs on the phone but that phone needs data bundles. I want to be honest, when I started working for [Platform], I was not working, bundles and transport were costly, so much that I had to go to a loan shark so that I manage to balance”… (Josephine, Cape Town). 

Mobile access and maintaining connectivity are both critical components of accessing digitally mediated work yet globally, women are 8% less likely than men to own a mobile phone and 20% less likely than men to use mobile internet. Disparities in mobile access were evident in our focus countries: in South Africa, for instance, fewer than half (47%) of adults own a smartphone and half, particularly those at the intersections of class, gender, race or ethnicity could not access the internet, chiefly owing to the cost of data. In Kenya, 26% of women use mobile data, compared with 43% of men.

In addition, the locations in which workers live and the limited availability and cost of transport to ‘gigs’ greatly influence the ability to take up platform work. On-demand work is currently largely urban-based, but even within cities, long distances and poor transport infrastructure can make many gigs advertised on platforms inaccessible in practice. Moreover, unlike when working at a fixed location, workers may need to travel between several ‘gigs’ daily and therefore rack up transport costs. In South Africa, women gig workers spoke of extremely poor public transport between township/low-income areas where many were based and clients’ middle- or upper-class neighbourhoods. Poor public transport and fear of crime often intersect: globally, women typically report being more fearful of crime than men, including in transit environments, and may restrict their movements accordingly. In South Africa in particular, our respondents reported high personal safety risks while in transit, notably after dark.

Like now its winter and I stay in [area] . . . people are getting robbed every day. So 6 a.m. it will be very dark, and for instance you will be having a booking for 7 a.m. which means I will have to wake up by 5 a.m. then I will take my child to crèche by 6 a.m. … but it’s not safe to move from my house to the school because it will be very dark so I do not want a 7 a.m. booking because it’s a risk. I can’t risk my life for ZAR 150, it won’t work” (Faheema, Cape Town)

The need for childcare also disproportionately affects women’s ability to access digitally-mediated work; here too, there may be differences from traditional work arrangements. While platforms may offer workers some control over when they work, they must also conform to client demand. Clients contracting a gig worker are less likely to be flexible in terms of working hours, or indeed – in the case of the domestic work sector – to permit bringing a child to work.

“I had to wake up early at 4 a.m. … I drop my child next door in her sleep and go to the train station. I have to take the early trains because trains delay and I end up being late for my booking. This is why I ended up leaving my child next door because no crèche opens at 4 a.m.

Interviewer: What happens if your neighbour is not available on that day?

‘Ahhh unotorega kuenda kubasa kwacho’ [you end up not taking any booking at all]. This is why it’s difficult to have my child live with me. (Akumzi, Cape Town)

Moreover, the irregular nature of gigs poses difficulties to using formal childcare services, such as a crèche, where fees were paid monthly:

At the crèche we do not pay every day we pay monthly a sum of ZAR 300. So whether you take your child or not, it’s a fixed amount ZAR 300 that you pay.” (Faheema, Cape Town)

We identified several examples of ‘good practice’ among platform companies that offer the potential to mitigate gender-based inequalities. The platform we collaborated with in South Africa recently introduced a data-free app and was experimenting with options to provide transport to workers and childcare at weekends. We urge that platform design takes into account gendered barriers to access, particularly given projected high growth rates in female-dominated sectors of the gig economy. However, to truly ‘level up the playing field’, greater attention must be paid to the fundamental inequalities that women face in engaging in labour markets, in traditional and digital spheres alike – e.g. to redress unequal asset ownership, promote gender-sensitive transport systems, and redistribute unpaid care. Tackling these foundational inequalities will be critical to ensure they do not continue to exert a hold as new forms of work evolve.

Emily Samman is a Research Associate at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

Abigail Hunt is a Research Fellow at Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

Image credit: William Iven on Unsplash