‘Breaking the bias’ – gender equality and the gig economy

Yesterday marked the 111th International Women’s Day, a global day of celebration for the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. But it is also an opportunity to reflect on and further the push towards gender equality.

While there has been much to celebrate, it has been suggested that the pandemic threatens to reverse decades of progress made towards gender equality as women have been hit harder both socially and economically than men. However, the shift in working practices during the pandemic may help to transform the future of work to the benefit of women.

There has been continued growth in the digital platform or gig economy workforce, with many women entering this type of work because of the pandemic. The gig economy has been shown to have the potential to improve gender equality in the economy, but it is not without its challenges when it comes to gender parity, as recent research has highlighted.

A platform for gender equality?

The report from the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) highlights that the growth of artificial intelligence (AI) technology and platform or gig work has the potential to create new opportunities for gender equality, but at the same time can reinforce gender stereotypes, sexism and discrimination in the labour market. It found that some of the key attractions of gig work such as its flexibility, are often disadvantageous to women.

The EIGE surveyed almost 5000 workers in the platform economy across 10 countries to understand who they are, why they do platform work, and what challenges they face.  It found that:

  • a higher share of women (45%) than men (40%) among regular platform workers indicated that they worked on digital labour platforms because they were a good way to earn (additional) income;
  • flexibility, expressed as the ability to choose working hours and location, motivated about 43% of women and 35% of men;
  • a higher share of women (36%) than men (28%) said they do platform work because they can combine it with household chores and family commitments;
  • 36% of women started or restarted platform work because of the pandemic, compared to 35% of men.

The flexibility of platform work has consistently been referred to as the main motivating factor for engaging in such work. And this flexibility has been found to be more important for women, particularly in relation to family commitments. In practice, however, the research shows that flexibility is limited, with as many as 36% of women and 40% of men working at night or at the weekend, and many working hours they cannot choose.

On the plus side of the gender equality debate, it seems the gig economy is slightly less gender-segregated than the traditional labour market, with a higher share of men doing jobs usually done by women. For example, traditionally female-dominated sectors such as housekeeping and childcare are more gender-diverse in the gig economy:

  • housework (women: 54%, men: 46%)
  • childcare (women: 61%, men: 39%)
  • data entry (women: 47%, men: 53%)

But the EIGE’s survey also suggests a degree of skills mismatch and overqualification in platform work that affects women in particular. It suggests that highly educated women are more likely to do jobs that do not match their level of education, putting them at greater risk of losing their skills.

Gender bias in AI

The report also shines a light on the issue of gender bias in AI which can be a particular issue in the gig economy where such systems are frequently used.

It argues that gender bias can be embedded in AI by design, reflecting societal norms or the personal biases of those who design the systems. For example, the use of algorithms that are trained with biased data sets perpetuate historically discriminatory hiring practices which can lead to female candidates being discarded.

Platform workers can also be monitored using time-tracking software, which deducts ‘low productivity time’ from pay, increasing ‘digital wage theft’, to which women are more vulnerable.

Considering just 16% of AI professionals in the EU and UK are women – a percentage which decreases with career progression – this is something that needs to be addressed if gender parity in the gig economy, and indeed the entire modern economy, is to be achieved.

Way forward

The EIGE report welcomes new proposed EU legislation to improve the working conditions of platform workers and the EU’s proposed ‘Artificial Intelligence Act’, suggesting this shows promise when it comes to minimising the risk of bias and discrimination in AI. Also highlighted as a positive sign, is the EU’s commitment to train more specialists in AI, especially women and people from diverse backgrounds.

Nevertheless, one of the conclusions of the report is that regulations and policy discussions on platform work are largely gender blind and that action is required on multiple levels to address gender inequalities and discrimination in the gig economy.

To this end, the report recommends that the EU needs to do the following:

  • mainstream gender into the policy framework on AI-related transformation of the labour market;
  • increase the number of women in, and the diversity of, the AI workforce;
  • address the legal uncertainty in the employment status of platform workers to combat disguised employment;
  • address gender inequalities in platform work;
  • ensure that women and men platform workers can access social protection.

There are lessons here for the UK too. Perhaps the fulfilling of these actions will go some way to improving the situation by the time we get to the next International Women’s Day.


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