Independent work is on the rise. Using data from the 2016 Global Independent Work Survey, McKinsey says that independent workforce is projected to grow from 68 million to 129 million in the US alone. And a study by Randstad US, an HR service and staffing firm, finds that 70% of workers and 68% of employers believe that a majority of the workforce will be employed in an agile capacity by 2025. Within this so-called ‘gig economy’ women are on track to be the majority of the workers. According to a recent study from Harvard University, “[from] 2005 to 2015, the percentage of women who were employed in an alternative work arrangement more than doubled, rising from 8.3 percent to 17.0 percent… women are now more likely than men to be employed in an alternative work arrangement.”
The world of revolutionary alternatives for workers is rapidly growing. It is an evolution of the work culture driven by individuals seeking to alter the traditional working framework into a more flexible environment. Research shows that “giggers” by choice report greater satisfaction with their work lives than those who hold traditional jobs. Certainly, this is a clear indication that the gig economy will attract more people in coming years.
This growth has an additional aspect – within the gig sector, women are on track to be the majority. Women are drawn to the gig economy for a number of reasons: flexibility enabling them to take care of their families while working, a ticket for departing a conservative and sometimes even sexist environment and finally a chance to seek equal pay.
The appeal is well understood. Many women see the gig option as the “I can have it all” alternative. Perhaps, it is their chance to avoid the major question of whether to lean in or opt out of the labor market. Many women (approximately 43% in the US) will not return to the job market after becoming mothers, some will return to low-paying, demanding and inflexible jobs, and yet others will pursue a career filled with guilt over the time they spend away from family or personal pursuits. For all of these women, the gig economy provides an answer – it is a “third path”, being an alternative to the traditional two-path track of choosing between motherhood and the career world.
The advantages of the gig economy for women
With slower (if any) promotion tracks, lower salaries, restricting 9-5 work hours – even today, the traditional workplace is limiting to women. These women choosing alternative lifestyles are already out there: the stay-at-home-mom that started making handbags in her basement to be sold on Etsy and became a business owner. The woman who left her full-time job and took on a See Jane Go driving gig in order to study computer programing remotely and eventually started her own startup company. The top executive that left a limiting environment to compete with her former employer and highly succeeded in doing so.
However, the flow of women taking on gigs is not only a matter of self-fulfillment to individuals, but can also provide a unique opportunity to deal with gender inequality in the workplace. The gig economy is a different, more advanced in its essence, and inherently liberal phenomenon. Thus, one might claim that the gig economy may be less discriminatory due to technology. The use of technological platforms blurs distinctions between genders. For example, at Fiverr and other similar platforms, services are provided online and a customer does not (or at least does not have to) know the gender of the gigger. These gig platforms created a place where women and men may be given equal opportunities and be compensated for their work based on their qualifications and not their gender.
Another element is the removal of information barriers and its effect on gender compensation discrimination. Empirically, in classic employment relationships, information gaps allow employers to discriminate women in terms of salary, whereas in the gig economy, where remuneration is often public information, gender compensation gaps may fade.
It is also possible that the gig movement will not only provide a good alternative for women but also impact the conservative organizations from the outside. Where the feminist struggle was focused on participation in the workforce, the gig economy offers women an alternative – provide for themselves financially, have free time for themselves and their families and still take part in the business world. I anticipate that giggers will unite to promote common interests and utilize the power of this growing group, which consists mainly of women, to elevate it. In other words, the gig economy could be inviting women to give up the goal of breaking the glass ceiling, suggesting them to bypass it.
A stay-home path in disguise?
The question that must be asked is whether this “third path” is really distinct from the other two? Is it possible that this so-called third path is merely an illusion? A stay-home path in disguise? Even an escape from economic reality? In short, are we witnessing true progress or an actual step backward for women in the labor market?
Why is the gig particularly appealing to women? Clearly, inequality between the genders in the workplace, albeit improving, is still an issue. Equal pay and promotion opportunities are still lacking for women. One reason, of course, is that society still expects the woman to be the ultimate domestic worker. Sometimes, society is relegating women to inferior positions, expecting far less than what they are actually able and willing to give.
In other words, if this trend continues, having a gig might even turn into a new kind of default position for women. Women may be socially expected to take care of both their homes and families, yet defer from assuming a full-time job. In this kind of world, the woman will be in a working category that is excluded from powerful, decision-making positions.
Refraining from the corporate world
At second glance, it would seem that project-based and short-term employment gigs may limit brave and ambitious women from rising up in the workforce. Classic gigs are, for instance, running an Etsy shop, being an Uber driver or providing services on Fiverr. Gigs may also include high-end consulting positions; however, even in these cases, the giggers may advise CEOs, but they can never be one. Giggers must understand that certain positions in the business world, as well as society, including upper-echelon positions in large corporations, high-level research positions, and even politics, are opportunities that are not open to them. In general, people in the gig economy are inherently excluded from decision-making forums – they don’t call the shots.
One unintended negative consequence of women joining the gig world is the undesirable possibility that those who do not choose this path will see their upward mobility detrimentally affected. In other words, the fewer the women in the workplace (in particular the most talented), the more difficult it is for those who remain to succeed. Another negative aspect is the fact that society loses significant contributions that women can render. In case the female majority in the gig economy is not mostly comprised of household women, this is a disturbing trend of women leaving power centers.
The gig economy challenges our classic perception of gender inequality in the work/labor market, offering giggers new roads for success while alienating them from traditional decision-making junctions. The consequences of this phenomenon should not be overlooked, as it carries wide social and economic effects. Society must aspire to minimize the negative effect on the place of women in workplaces, and create more possibilities for men in the gig economy, in order to achieve a more balanced market.