Debate and research on the digital economy tend to focus on its novel aspects and technological advances, but these developments do not unfold in a (social) vacuum. In fact, digitalization is embedded in current social structures and shaped by social relations, including gender relations, and focusing on these can provide important answers about the impact and future shape of the digital economy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it evident that inequalities and gender segmentation persist both in European labour markets and in households, despite decades-long progress towards closing gender gaps. As a result, many of the changes in work organisation and policies implemented during the pandemic had a different impact on men and women. Similarly, if left unchecked, there is a risk that the digital revolution may exacerbate gender inequalities.
Digital technologies enable many types of work to be performed from places other than the employer’s premises, often moving work tasks to private spaces. Working remotely can give workers more autonomy in organising their work and managing schedules. Similarly, the development of online labour markets, with the emblematic labour platforms at the forefront of this trend, allows for spatial and temporal flexibility of work.
Despite some early warnings about technologically-mediated work providing flexibility mostly to employers rather than to workers, it was proclaimed to be a solution conducive to a better work-life balance. Home-based remote work makes it possible to combine paid work, unpaid care, and domestic work, as all these activities can be performed from the same location and even simultaneously. As the brunt of unpaid care and domestic work still falls on women, what are the consequences for gender equality?
Home-based work has traditionally remained invisible to labour regulation and been undervalued. Career prospects for workers who remain out of employers’ sight may decline due to pervasive presenteeism and a culture of working long hours. Such risks are likely to affect women in particular as they may have less scope to opt out of home-based remote work that allows them to juggle unpaid care work and paid employment. There is thus a risk that a new form of gender segmentation may emerge, with men working from offices and women from home. Moreover, there are also a number of well-founded concerns regarding health and safety risks, including limited scope to disconnect from work and a spill-over of working hours into private time. This is of particular concern to women, as issues related to working time have a more pronounced negative impact on their health and well-being.
Significantly, the digital economy is also reshaping employment models, improving efficiency in outsourcing various tasks and functions. Women taking up remote work might thus end up as home-based self-employed entrepreneurs or independent contractors. These forms of work are highly individualised and lack collective forms of support and representation, often coupled with low incomes and a lack of access to social security. This risks reinforcing women’s marginalisation in more precarious jobs.
Finally, algorithmic management, used in platform work but increasingly also by traditional employers, leads to fragmentation and intensification of work tasks. While this method should remain “gender-blind”, as a worker’s gender is not visible to an algorithm, recent research has nevertheless found striking gender pay differences in platform-mediated remote work. These result from gender differences in working patterns, with women grappling with more disruptive interruptions to their work due to household duties than men.
Ambitious social and employment policy, combined with mainstreaming gender in the digital economy, are vital to harness technology for gender equality. Policy initiatives and efforts must extend beyond increasing women’s participation and representation in the digital economy. The primary concern should be to ensure that the digital economy provides employment opportunities that fulfil the criteria for good-quality and decent work, respecting workers’ rights and offering conditions conducive to a healthy and sustainable working life. Binding international standards in this domain are urgently needed; recent EU policy proposals on working conditions for platform work move in the right direction. However, effective policies must do more than simply addressing employment and working conditions in the digital economy; tackling structural inequalities in gendered division of housework and care activities is likewise vital. In this respect, national measures and engagement of social partners are vital to attain a cultural shift in gender attitudes and norms.
Overall, before promoting this new world of work to women and other vulnerable groups in the labour market, it is crucial to ensure that the work on offer might close rather than exacerbate gender gaps in income and employment quality.
Agnieszka Piasna is a senior researcher in European Trade Union’s (ETUI) Economic, Employment and Social Policies Unit. She is a labour sociologist, interested in job quality, labour market policies and regulation, digitalization, and gender equality. At ETUI, she currently coordinates research activities in the context of the ETUI Internet and Platform Work Survey, develops the European Job Quality Index, and conducts research on working-time reduction.