India has one of the lowest Female Labour Force Participation (FLFP) among developing countries. As per estimates for 2018-19, it stood at 24.5% for women aged 15 years and above – a sharp decline from 31.2% in 2011-12 – and is well below the global average of 45%.
Though FLFP has remained historically low in India, the latest trends confirm that women have been continuously dropping out of the labour force and increasingly attending domestic duties, even when education levels have improved. Much social and academic attention has been drawn to explain this puzzling drift—one driver of this decline is the absence of suitable job opportunities for women in fast-growing sectors.
Experts have long debated that flexible work arrangements may benefit women by improving opportunities to balance their household responsibilities, unpaid childcare, and paid work. This has substantially pushed women into the gig economy – a labour market characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work instead of permanent jobs.
In my opinion, however, the gig economy does not offer a fair future of work for women. It ends up romanticizing the ‘I-do-it-all’ image of a woman, which is unrealistic and burdening – why is it that men can be men, but women need to superwomen to be considered successful?
Yes, change takes time. Yes, the gig economy may be well-suited for some, but using the gig economy as a permanent solution instead of a transitional one is an illusional ‘upliftment of women.’
Those who argue for the gig economy in increasing women’s labour force participation often make the mistake of looking at ‘flexibility’ through an extremely narrow lens – considering only how the gig economy allows women more flexible work hours.
But the kind of flexibility that will improve women’s labour market participation rate is the flexibility to choose an occupation they desire, the flexibility to reach and perform to their full potential at the workplace, the flexibility to access social protection mechanisms, the flexibility to demand a more even distribution of household chores, and the flexibility to transform social norms and traditional decision-making paradigms.
The gig economy, while possibly allowing women more flexible work hours, takes away these other forms of flexibility that are crucial in improving the workplace gender ratio. Here’s how :
We can identify cultural biases that consign female workers to specific occupations as a major inflexibility source in the labour market. Not only is the productive potential of a firm left un-maximized, but women are actively discouraged and disadvantaged when entering certain fields. These gender stereotypes may be prevalent in workplaces outside the gig economy. However, research suggests that ‘the expansion of the gig economy portrays a distinct gendered group of workers performing routine work.’ Most labour in the administrative, care and domestic help departments in the gig economy is supplied by women, whereas 95% of Uber drivers and 94% of delivery men are males.
This defaulting to stereotypes about the ability of women to perform specific tasks can be accredited to a few factors. First, it is routine for employers within the gig economy to make employment choices based on limited information about job applicants. This, coupled with the short-term nature of jobs in the gig economy, triggers the use of ‘cognitive shortcuts about intrinsic gender characteristics linked to different skills and occupations’ (Hernan Galperin, 2019). By this, female workers are less likely to be hired for jobs traditionally believed to be ‘male-oriented,’ such as software development, than male candidates they might be more qualified than.
The gig economy’s brainchild ‘People Per Hour’s’ ad campaign substantiates this cognitive and cultural bias. Their slogan ‘You do the girl boss thing, we’ll do the SEO thing’ assumes the inability of women to master ‘tech’ services. When they imply that even women in high leadership posts require help with SEOs, it is inevitable for these conditions to transcend across gig markets, in turn enhancing gender-based occupational roles and reducing female worker’s opportunity and pay in jobs such as technical services that constitute a major part of the gig economy. These stereotypes might be prevalent in workplaces outside the gig economy too, but various laws and practices are in place to limit them there. When conventional employer-employee relations are substituted with individual transactions on a global scale, the enforcement of anti-discrimination labour laws become ever more challenging.
Hindrance in the leadership ladder and increased risk of harassment is concerning. Women are curtailed somewhat, stripped from the opportunity of assuming leadership roles due to the short-term character of gig jobs, aggravating the preposterous rate of top women executives globally.
This problem materializes because of the ambiguous classification of gig workers. As mentioned previously, federal laws and human-resources departments exist to address harassment, discrimination, and other similar issues. Gig workers, however, function outside this sphere. There are held accountable but are not adequately accounted for. This, mixed with the transient nature of work that makes them easily replaceable, leaves gig workers highly vulnerable.
Moreover, 54% of female freelance workers per survey in the USA were reported: “sexually harassed in the course of their work.” Of those, 77% cited “unprofessional comments” about their appearance, three-quarters were called “demeaning nicknames” on the job, and a horrifying 60% reported “physical intimidation.”
Taken as a snapshot of the larger picture, these numbers indicate the extensive problem with safety within the gig economy, which functions far outside a decent accountability structure. One might argue that sexual assault and harassment are common in any workplace. However, a lack of support mechanisms from the employer – present in traditional workspaces – turn the gig economy into an exploitative business model with abuse in the form of low wages, a lack of basic worker’s rights, and a higher potential for harassment/violence and impunity.
The lack of safety mechanisms is exacerbated by a lack of social benefit mechanisms within the gig economy. Falling under the veil of a self-employed worker excludes you, in most circumstances, from paid sick or holiday leaves, and specific to women limits you to a maternity allowance instead of statutory maternity pay. This can very easily lead to burnout from overwork and erosion of employee rights.
The recent Pimlico Plumbers case, despite the worker winning his claim to be identified as a worker for the company instead of self-employed, was not granted holiday pay, demonstrates the underlying problem and is one of many such cases.
Furthermore, there are several opportunities that women forego when they choose to be a part of the gig economy, such as growth and development training.
Finally, tackling the argument that the gig economy ‘allows more flexible hours’: workers can’t simply pick up work whenever they wish. Clients own demand for gigs as they have a wide range of workers available all the time. Due to this, workers can’t just step out and get to work; they have to wait until they get a booking for their service.
Moreover, the prevalent rating system in the gig economy can make it harder for those with overall less availability as they have completed few gigs, and the algorithm of several platforms underscores workers with the highest numbers of ‘jobs’ done. Just how flexible the gig economy is with work hours is debatable. How potent it is in triggering a higher sense of insecurity, I would say, is not.
The evolution of women in the workforce can be defined by a few key turning points. Throughout history, the biggest increase in women’s labour force participation rate was when women set aside their ‘traditional’ roles to serve their nations during crises and wars. However, the flaw with this is our acceptance of women’s ‘traditional’ jobs being household work and anything they do apart from that as their ‘side’ or ‘circumstantial’ work.
The gig economy exacerbates this lack of permanency that women deserve in the workplace by allowing them the ‘flexibility’ to balance household chores with ‘some’ work instead of promoting equal division of household chores – which, in the long term, is what we need to balance the gender ratio at work.
Thus, the gig economy provides an illusional fantasy of ‘work flexibility’ while taking away the stage from policies to actually secure adequately paid employment and flexible working conditions. Focusing only on work timing flexibility is a failure to recognize that women take on more unpaid care than men in the first place – leaving women to fit in even more hours of work instead of involving men to rectify this inequality.
In conclusion, shifting women into an occupationally immobile market possesses serious safety concerns, and where employers do not provide any social benefits may not constitute increasing workplace flexibility in the long run.
We need to stimulate normal social change that makes it customary for men to take on a fairer share of household work and the development of infrastructures such as childcare facilities that truly give women the flexibility to choose between the traditional workplace or the gig economy, and consequently, an occupation they desire, a pay they deserve, and the opportunity to live the life they dream.