Research Findings

Old wine in new bottles: gender and the gig economy


October 15, 2020

Luke Elliott-Negri, Kathleen Griesbach, Adam Reich and I began studying platform-based food delivery in 2018. Like many labor scholars, we were fascinated by the exploding gig economy and its impact on workers. In late 2018 and early 2019 we conducted Facebook surveys with 955 platform-based food delivery workers, followed by in-depth interviews with 55 of them. 

Our data were collected well before the COVID-19 pandemic sparked an explosion of demand for all sorts of home delivery, even as it widened pre-existing gender and class inequalities. Those developments only add to the significance of our findings. 

We did not start the project with a gender focus, but we quickly learned that working-class women dominate this sector of the gig economy. About three-fourths of our survey respondents (and a similar proportion of interviewees) were female, and mostly white. This should not have been a surprise, but for us it was, maybe because we live in New York City, which has a far longer tradition of food delivery – mostly performed by immigrant men – than the rest of the U.S.

It is tempting to imagine that gig work, where the boss is not a human but an algorithm, is uncontaminated by the gender inequities that structure traditional occupations. But the gig economy is embedded in the larger society. Like the rest of the labor market, platform-based work is gender-segregated: most drivers for Uber and Lyft are men, for example, while food delivery is a female-dominated sector in most of the U.S. Both within and across such gig-economy occupations, men earn more, on average, than women, just like in the rest of the labor market. 

The omnirelevance of gender is an old story. More surprising was the way in which our interviewees interpreted their work experiences and made them meaningful. In this high-tech, ultra-modern sector of the labor market, traditional gender arrangements are hegemonic – although at the same time our interviewees displayed strong class resentments toward both the company and their most privileged customers. We were struck by the salience of normative femininity among “shoppers” working for Instacart, Uber Eats Doordash, and similar platforms, as our recent article in Critical Sociology details.

Why Women Are Drawn to the Gig Economy

The women in this sector, most of them mothers and other caregivers, are attracted to it for three key reasons: (a) scheduling flexibility, which allows them to balance their paid delivery work with their unpaid caregiving commitments; (b) the opportunity to use their previously unpaid food provisioning skills to generate cash income, in a neoliberal twist on “wages for housework”; and (c) the emotional meaning derived from delivering food to elderly and disabled customers who cannot easily shop for themselves. All three of these features of food delivery gig work reflect and reinforce the traditional gender division of labor and normative femininity.

As we showed in an earlier publication, the food delivery platform companies’ much-vaunted promise of scheduling flexibility often has strings attached. But the women we interviewed highlighted control over their time as a compelling draw – especially relative to the increasingly unpredictable scheduling in traditional low-wage retail and service jobs. As one woman who had previously worked at Whole Foods recalled, “I saw a lot of Instacart shoppers in the store and I just got to thinking, ‘Why am I working on someone else’s schedule?’” Others waxed with enthusiasm about how they could schedule their food delivery gigs to dovetail with children’s activities and illnesses, taking family members to medical appointments, and the like. 

Another fascinating theme in the interviews was the pleasure and pride involved in the craft of food provisioning. “What girl doesn’t like to shop?” one woman asked rhetorically. Others spoke about how much they enjoyed food shopping, especially when spending someone else’s money. Some women criticized male shoppers for lacking the requisite skills, for example in selecting high-quality produce. Pride in shopping skill was a specifically female phenomenon among platform-based food delivery workers, even more so than scheduling around caregiving obligations, which a few “stay-at-home” fathers we interviewed also highlighted.

The Class-Gender Nexus

Just as the notorious weakness of the U.S. social safety net makes this job appealing to women with caregiving commitments, that same weakness leads people with disabilities and the elderly to rely on the market to meet their basic needs. That, in turn, endows food delivery with a caregiving dimension that makes the work meaningful to many of those who do it. “It gives me a good feeling to be able to help somebody,” one told us. “It’s a good service, even though the company is crap.” 

That perspective was echoed repeatedly in our interviews. “I hate this company,” one woman exclaimed. “They’re the enemy!  It’s us against them, and it’s war.” Another compared one of the firms to “the Antichrist.” They were especially enraged by the arbitrary changes – “pivots” in industry lingo – that the platforms periodically made in job payment rates and in the way customer tips were handled. The pivots also led to declining earnings. “They just keep cutting here, and cutting there, until pretty soon there’s not going to be anything left but tips,” one woman complained. Most interviewees, in short, were well aware of their class position.

These women exemplify what Marxist-feminist Temma Kaplan, in a classic article, famously called “female consciousness.” She noted that those with female consciousness “accept the gender system of their society,” and specifically the traditional gender division of labor. For Kaplan, class consciousness coexists with female consciousness among working-class women, and our case study confirms that. Interviewees resented their treatment by their most affluent customers (typically the worst tippers), in sharp contrast to those clients who valued their services because of age or disability. These workers were also enraged by the constantly shifting policies of the food delivery companies, and by their meager and unpredictable pay. But in contrast to their critical awareness of class domination, concern about gender inequality was conspicuous mainly by its absence. Instead, they explicitly embraced the traditional gender division of labor and normative femininity. 

The class-gender nexus has received limited attention in the burgeoning literature on intersectionality. Our article helps to fill that gap.

Read more

Ruth Milkman, Luke Elliott-Negri, Kathleen Griesbach and Adam Reich. “Gender, Class and the Gig Economy:  The Case of Platform-Based Food Delivery” in Critical Sociology.

Image: Leo Chen via Flickr (CC by 2.0)

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