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The Gig Economy Is Much Worse for Women | WIRED UK

When Grace started as a food delivery courier in Edinburgh in 2016, she was one of just two women doing it in the city. She appreciated being able to choose her hours for Deliveroo, fitting them around the study for her master’s degree. “I liked the independence and the idea of not having someone micromanaging me or looking over my shoulder as I worked,” says Grace. “Once I started, I realized those things were there, but in more subtle ways.” The fees started getting lower, and the journeys got longer. Like many of her friends doing gig economy work, Grace switched to delivering full-time with other platforms, including UberEats, Just Eat, and Citysprint, after putting her MA on hold. Often working a 60-hour week, it generated just about enough for her to live on.

But more courier work meant more exposure to harassment and unwanted attention, more everyday sexism, and more anxiety about her safety as she cycled the streets of Edinburgh. “If I was waiting for an order with other male riders, we’d sit waiting in the restaurant on our phones—but the waiters would come to me asking all the questions—how long have you been doing this? How strong are you? Do you live alone?” says Grace, who, like the other gig workers WIRED interviewed for this story, asked not to be identified in order to protect her privacy. “Several times, restaurant staff have taken my phone number from the app to contact me privately on my phone.”

Like many women working in the global gig economy, Grace adjusts her behavior to cope, and just gets on with it. She daren’t complain to the restaurants or platforms, for fear of losing out on income. Recent estimates by the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford suggest that over 163 million people worldwide secure income from paid work through digital labor platforms, and there has been a five-fold increase over the past decade. And although still in the minority, the share of women engaging in the digital economy has risen in recent years, whether that’s residential cleaning at the drop of a hat, delivering groceries in under 15 minutes, or filing someone else’s tax return.

But women working in the gig economy are more likely than men to face discrimination and sexual harassment at work. Their vulnerability at work means they often have to avoid taking on the most lucrative jobs, and when they do face abuse or harassment, there are rarely any ways for them to get help. More often than not, platforms that claim to be “gender agnostic” are designed based on an assumption that men’s experiences are the norm, leaving them blind to women’s realities.

“Women often develop their own mechanisms for dealing with this,” says Savita Bailur, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and the research director at Caribou Digital, a research consultancy firm working to help build ethical digital economies. “But with gender-sensitive design, they really shouldn’t have to.”

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