The platform economy reinforces gender inequality

21 June, 2021

With the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen an acceleration of the digitization and “platformization” of the economy. From the beginning, the platform economy has been celebrated as a more open, inclusive and democratic model than the traditional economy. However, although the majority of platforms send an open-access and equal opportunities message, there is little scientific evidence to confirm these assumptions, especially regarding gender equality. The studies being published suggest that platform work reproduces or exacerbates exclusion, segregation and the gender gap, well-established and present in the traditional economy. 

Dr. Mayo Fuster Morell, director of the recently created Barcelona UOC Chair in Digital Economy – together with Barcelona City Council and Barcelona Activa– and principal investigator of the IN3’s DIMMONS research group, has developed a framework for assessing different platform models according to their democratic qualities and alignment with social goals, such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the European Pillar of Social Rights. Fuster Morell has conducted a study of 100 digital platforms of all kinds.


Digital platforms: a diverse world

The researcher explained that “the majority of research on the platform economy has been based on profit-making platforms, those of the so-called Platform Capitalism model (represented by unicorn companies such as Airbnb, Deliveroo, Glovo, etc.), whereas the prosocial models have been less studied”. According to Fuster Morell, “the research being undertaken on these platforms suggests that they increase the gender exclusion and inequality existing in the traditional economy. And they also reproduce race and class hierarchies.”

When talking about digital platforms, it is important to differentiate between profit-making digital platforms -those which have more visibility- and prosocial platforms related to cooperativism and democratic economic organizations. She expalined that “some of them are large scale, such as Smart, a cooperative of freelance cultural workers that counts now 150,000 members in Europe”.


Gender equality and feminist dimensions of the platform economy

The research carried out by Fuster Morell analysed various gender equality and feminist dimensions of the platform economy:

  • 1st dimension: mission and value system aligned with life perseverance.
  • 2nd dimension: work-life balance
  • 3rd dimension: Intersection, equality between social classes and races and in global relations 
  • 4th dimension: inclusion and participation of women at all levels
  • 5th dimension: equal access, empowerment of people in a situation of discrimination, and disempowerment of the privileged
  • 6th dimension: non-sexist and non-discriminatory technology 

Unlike what may be thought, gender discriminiation is not only strengthened by unicorn companies and profit-making platforms , but also by the Open Commons platforms and cooperatives. Although the non-profit models which work with open data obtain a better score considering democratic values, this is not always the case in terms of gender equality, as shown by the exhaustive analysis performed by Fuster Morell: “Being a collaborative and open platform like Wikipedia or a cooperativist platform like Pee Dee doesn’t mean that they’re more inclusive platforms with women, quite the opposite”, said the researcher.

It is striking that, with the open platform model, the participation of women is even lower than on unicorn-type platforms. Wikipedia is a clear example as it only has on average 12% of female editors. Moreover, data from a European Commission study shows that in the private sector, women represent 30% of programmers while they only represent 1.5% in the open-source sector.


The challenge of applying gender equality to digital platforms

According to the researcher, research is a way  to fight  against this inequality: “there is very little gender-disaggregated data on the platform economy, making it difficult to have a precise idea of the situation. There are few data on access and participation by gender, and a total absence of data on male violence against women. The platform economy favours greater digital interaction and the development of work from home while those are the two spheres where violence is increasing the most: there is digital violence and gender-based violence.

Digital policies with a gender perspective are also required, as well as equality plans adapted to digital environments. Companies mainly need to comply with the regulations in force, and the regulations need to be adapted to the digital environment and platform work.” 

It is true that due to the type of work carried out in these platforms, applying gender equality and non-discrimination legislation is a challenge. Most platform workers are classified as self-employed or independent. This hinders their access to social and labour protection measures, such as measures favouring a work-life balance. 

Another challenge is the algorithms, the driving force behind the operation of the platforms. According to Fuster Morell, “the algorithms that they use have a design based on sexist stereotypes. It’s a technology which doesn’t include the gender perspective or interdisciplinary approaches.”

In short, the research conducted by Fuster Morell, and in general in this sphere, indicates that all digital platform models have a low score in gender equality. Although it is true that open and cooperative platforms are better aligned with democratic values, they are still subject to the gender inequality present in the traditional economic model. Digitization programmes should therefore be supported by a cross-disciplinary gender design and should step up the adoption of equality measures. This is the case of the MatchImpulsa programme, a cross-cutting feminist initiative for the digitization of the social and solidarity-based economy of Barcelona promoted in the context of the Barcelona UOC Chair in Digital Economy.

For further information you can watch the presentation of the study (video) that the IN3 researcher made at the 7th International Workshop on the Sharing Economy, organized by the UOC’s Faculty of Economics and Business and the IN3’s Dimmons group.


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