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Female returners in the platform economy


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AAG April 2018: Gendered Digital Work-Lives: Juggling Gig Work and Mothering
This paper emerges from feminist economic geography debates around social reproduction and the future of work in the so-called ‘sharing economy’ or ‘gig economy’. Within this framework, it documents the lived experiences of female returners with young families juggling gig work with the messy and fleshy everyday activities of social reproduction, in ways that potentially disrupt (versus reinforce) stubborn gendered labour market inequalities. The analysis is developed through fieldwork with women using popular online jobs platforms (TaskRabbit, Upwork, PeoplePerHour) in two UK cities (Leeds and Manchester) which are actively positioning themselves as ‘Sharing Cities’. Despite widespread claims surrounding female emancipatory work-life possibilities (‘mumpreneurship’) enabled by the gig economy, supporting evidence is limited. In short, we know relatively little about the everyday work-lives of women trying to make a living using online work platforms – not least, the much heralded ‘emancipatory’ experiences of female digital workers seeking to reconcile work, home and family, and to negotiate better labour market outcomes via digital work platforms relative to ‘mainstream’ employers. Reinforcing these problems, the expansive work-life balance research literature is limited in its engagement with the Gig Economy. Rather, most WLB studies focus on the challenges of juggling work, home and family amongst employees in ‘standard’ workplaces governed by HR managers; rather than the diversity of ‘alternative’ workspaces occupied by gig workers, whose abilities to reconcile competing activities of work, home and family as ‘dependent contractors’ are governed by digital algorithms and the work allocation models built into them by platform developers. In so doing, this paper brings debates around mothering into new productive conversation with labour geography and digital economies.

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Female returners in the platform economy

  1. 1. Gendered Digital Work-Lives: Juggling Online Gig Work and Mothering Al James @Re_AlJames American Association of Geographers, New Orleans, 13 April 2018
  2. 2. Sustaining Economies: Gendered Work- Life Conflict, Struggling with the Juggling TRIPLE WHAMMY: 1. Working longer, harder, less predictable schedules 2. Increased female labourforce; more dual earner & lone-parent households; complex household lives 3. Neoliberal attack on social provisioning – transfer care down to ‘natural’ level of home (Bakker and Gill 2003) - women assume majority burden § Complex, multi-variable juggling act: workers have finite time and energy • Lack of WLB: increased stress, negative effects on psychological and physical well-being, and increased family & marital tensions (many studies) 150 firms, 300 IT workers, 10 years of research, UK & Ireland
  3. 3. Policy Type Description Examples Flexible Work Arrangements Policies designed to give workers greater ‘flexibility’ in the scheduling and location of work hours while not decreasing average work hours per week Flextime (flexible beginning or end work time, sometimes with core hours) Flexplace / Telecommuting (all or part of the week occurs at home) Job sharing (one job undertaken by 2 or more persons) Annualised hours Reduced Work Hours Policies designed to reduce workers’ hours Part-time work Compressed work weeks (employees compact total working hours into 4 days rather than 5) Term-time working Practical Help with Child Care Policies designed to provide ‘workplace social support’ for parents Employer-subsidised childcare – in-site Employer-subsidised childcare – off-site Information service for childcare Workplace parent support group Breast-feeding facilities Personal Leave Policies and benefits that give leave to provide time for personal commitments & family caregiving Extra-statutory maternity leave Extra-statutory paternity leave Adoption leave Unpaid leave during school holidays Guaranteed Christmas leave Use of own sick leave to care for sick children Leave for caring for elder relatives Emergency leave Study leave Sports achievement leave So what can employers do to help? BUT: Many employers remain unconvinced – (administrative burden, lack of evidence) Limits to managerial buy-in Recessionary roll-back of WLB provision Female workers voting with their feet: move to other firms (better WLB provision); quit the sector; other women turn to online work platforms – in search of greater work autonomy, improved WLB, less stress
  4. 4. Platform Work-Life Possibilities? ‘The dawn of a new humane era’ (Rifkin, 2014) nThird Industrial Revolution – Internet reduces marginal cost of production almost to zero (eliminates middlemen mark up) n‘The optimally efficient state for promoting the general welfare and represents the ultimate triumph of capitalism’ (p. 10-11) nUnbundling of production from employment nResult: ‘a more humane and efficient capitalist market’ (p. 27).
  5. 5. § FORBES (2015) interview with founder and CEO of Moonlighting (Jeff Tennery): § “Mobile Optimized Mothers, or as we call them M.O.M’s… are empowering themselves, choosing to work from home and earn a living on their terms. We’re very honored to help them on their mission to achieve that balance between career and life.” § ‘For professional women, the on-demand economy is already a godsend… to advance in their careers or at least stay in the game while being the kind of parents they want to be’ (Andreasson 2015:2). [!!!] § See also, Wosskow 2014, ILO 2016 Sickly-Sweet Celebrations of Female Work-Life Emancipation in the ‘Platform Economy’
  6. 6. RESEARCH FOCUS: Female Returners Using On-Demand Work Platforms 1.Empowering, WLB liberating effect? c.f. demands formal office work environments? 2.Disrupting uneven gender distribution of ‘life’s work’? 3.‘Employer-provided WLB’ arrangements on platforms? 4.Work-life experiences of being managed by algorithms cf. manager in the flesh? 26 interviews (Jan-March 2018, majority mothers – PPH, Upwork, Copify, Fiverr, Taskrabbit, WorkEtc) – mix of full- time freelancers and platform top-ups (from highly paid, to low paid) – desk based communications, marketing, business devt, HR, office support, web, design, graphics – majority mothers Lack of analysis – despite women well represented in UK on- demand workforce (see Huws et al. 2016 survey, 52% UK platform workers)
  7. 7. 1. Better Juggling Platform Work, Home and Family? Absence of Employer Support? nGreater ‘flexibility’ of work widely identified (cf. previous jobs; also, illness) nBenefits of reduced commute nEnabling pockets work around care tasks nBut: lack of line manager + employer support: ‘it’s all on me’ – no paid sick leave / holiday leave / pension (‘1 hr child time = 1 hr lost income’) nMajor sources of work-life conflict: nRegular evening and weekend working nJackpot jobs demand instant proposals nExcessive customer demands
  8. 8. 1. Juggling Platform Work & Mothering ‘My work is always set for the times when she’s already in the bed, but … it happened to me twice, actually, that I was supposed to start have a Skype call set up with [client] for 8 o’clock, and my daughter didn’t want to go to sleep. My computer is downstairs. Her bedroom is upstairs. And I was stuck, like, what do I do? Do I go to the computer with the baby in my arms, and just say, “Okay, [client], I can do 15 minutes later”?... there is nothing you can do.’ (female freelancer, PPH, Jan 2018) ‘In the mornings I try not to work… just to set that precedent as well that I'm not available 24/7. So I do the nursery run, the school run and then… meetings, phone calls, catch ups. Then it's normally pick up, spend a couple of hours with my daughter and then it's normally a pocket of two or three hours in the evening, so from 7pm until 9pm, 7pm until 10pm where I really catch up’. (female freelancer, PPH, Jan 2018)
  9. 9. 2. Female Health and Safety in the ‘Gig Economy’: Maternity Leave, and Female Returners nLOWER / NO maternity pay for female freelancers nHiding pregnancy from clients nWorking close to due date (c.f. pregnancies with formal employee status) nCutting maternity leave short nLoss of clients nTruncated / regressed career ladders n 2017 study GPDQ platform – mental health issues for freelance women and newborns – mothers working within crucial first 6 weeks (n=104) ‘So I started freelancing in 2006 which was when [son] was born, and I had [daughter] December of 2007. She was supposed to be a Christmas day baby, so I worked until probably the 24th of December, had [daughter], and then due to commitments… technically I didn’t have any maternity leave [laughs]! I worked, basically, almost as soon as I had [daughter]… It wasn’t so horrendous because she slept a lot, but it was very tiring’. (female freelancer, PPH, Jan 2018)
  10. 10. 2. Female Health and Safety in the ‘Gig Economy’: Inappropriate (Male) Buyer Behaviour ‘I actually had a customer last year, I was put off freelancing for a little while because of this… would ring me at 5pm, for an hour, an hour and a half every evening. He knew I had a child. He'd always be calling and I wouldn't answer. Then I'd get emails straightaway, "Are you not interested? Shall we not pay you this month?" I found that very uncomfortable. Also, he was a man, he had my address because my invoices were there and I didn't feel safe. He also had my mobile number so I ended up having to block him on my mobile, block him on my landline. I had to block his texts on my phone as well … I was living in paranoia that he was going to turn up here. That's awful. No one should have to feel like that’. (female freelancer, PPH, Jan 2018)
  11. 11. nSubstantial service fees taken by platforms, need to set competitive (lower!) rates à longer work hours nVariability of workflow promotes overwork (‘while the sun shines’) nAutonomy? being managed by algorithms nTaking work offline vs. being seen in algorithm nFrequent crises for female freelancers around school vacations (+ Dec/Jan work low) 3. Greater Female Worker Autonomy vs Pressures of Overwork on Platforms ‘This is my income. This isn't a joke. This is me paying for my rent. This is me paying for food, paying for uniforms, things like that." I was like, "You cannot drop my ranking." How ridiculous is that, that I'm begging them not to drop my ranking. But I'm like, "You can't drop me out of the algorithm because people won't find me and I won't be able to get any work”’. (female freelancer, PPH, Jan 2018)
  12. 12. Female Returners in the ‘Platform Economy’: A (Familiar) Discussion n Search for work-family flexibility - major pull – but lack of ‘employer’ support n Highly varied female gig worker experiences (and blurring with PT emp) – very few 100% platform n Compromise WLB: some greater spatial flexibility (work from home) n BUT most female freelancers still doing majority childcare n Major issues around female health and safety – esp. maternity leave n Gendered labour market inequalities for female returners reinscribed online?