When Ayesha, 40, started driving for ride-hailing service Careem in 2017, she was desperate for a steady income. Six months before, she had lost her job at a local bank in Karachi, and the subsequent job hunt had been brutal.
Ayesha, whose name has been changed at her request, thought working for the service would bring an end to her financial woes. Careem had recently introduced incentives for Pakistani women to join their fleet, including shorter working hours and guaranteed minimum daily earnings. In less than a year, she was earning upward of 50,000 Pakistani rupees ($301) per month: more than her salary at the bank and enough to pay rent for her one-bedroom apartment, take care of her aging parents, and add a little to her savings.
But when the ride-hailing service was acquired by Uber in 2019, Ayesha says that it took the incentives away. Her earnings fell to less than 30,000 rupees ($179) per month.
Ayesha spoke to Rest of World by phone on a Monday afternoon. She’d parked her car under a tree near Karachi’s Korangi Industrial Area — a smoldering mass of concrete and dust — where she was hoping to pick up lunch-hour traffic. It was 2 p.m. She had been on the road for about five hours and secured just one ride, making 300 rupees ($1.80).
Drivers need to be available for most of the day if they want to make a living on Careem, Ayesha said, but, for her, that just isn’t possible. “If I am on the road all day, who will look after my home?” she said.
Working in partnership with the research company Premise, Rest of World surveyed more than 4,900 gig workers in 15 countries, asking them about their experiences working for ride-hailing, food delivery, and domestic services platforms. Our research found that platform work is heavily gendered, with a majority of domestic workers being female, and a substantial majority of ride-hailing drivers and delivery workers being male. We found that platforms have brought women into the labor force: 11% of female gig workers who responded to our survey said that they didn’t have a job before joining a platform, compared to 8% of men.
But we also found that the gender gap remains significant, suggesting that structural discrimination against women in the workforce has been replicated in platform work. “The platform economy fundamentally benefits from the same patriarchy that has benefited prior sectors,” Bama Athreya, a researcher on labor, gender equity, and social inclusion and author of a report on gender inequality in gig work, Bias In, Bias Out, told Rest of World. “It should be no surprise to us that those things are replicated when new technologies emerge.”
Women — who make up around a quarter of the total workers we surveyed — were less likely to be performing higher-paid platform work, like taxi driving, and earned less overall, even though they typically made around the same amount of money per hour than their male counterparts. That is because women on gig platforms work fewer hours than men. This was particularly true in Pakistan, where women worked on average 4.3 hours on a typical day, while men work an average of 6.3 hours.
This, Athreya said, likely boils down to the way that platforms apportion labor. While they’re supposed to allow flexibility of shifts, in reality, they often offer incentives for workers to take job after job after job, while they penalize workers for turning down gigs. But women still take on a disproportionate role in domestic labor and caregiving, meaning they’re often unable to meet the time demands of the algorithm.
“Things like gamification — the incentivization that says, ‘Hey, if you just do one more gig, we will bump you up to this bonus’ — the ways in which jobs immediately disappear if you’re not right on them; all those things have a gendered impact because of the differential time poverty that women experience,” Athreya said.
That translated, understandably, to women reporting lower financial satisfaction than their male counterparts. Of the countries in our survey, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and South Africa reported the largest disparity in financial satisfaction between female and male gig workers.
The ratings systems that apps use to judge workers’ performance can also “encode discrimination,” Athreya said, by reflecting users’ conscious or unconscious biases. “It’s very, very, very difficult to hold the companies accountable. Because, of course, the ratings are outsourced to clients,” she said. “So, is it the company that’s discriminating? Or is it the clients?”
Platforms’ business models also typically rest on workers being defined as independent contractors, meaning that the tech company that mediates between the worker and the client doesn’t take accountability for women’s safety while on a job. That, again, reduces the type and number of gigs that women can take, reducing their ability to earn.
Rest of World’s survey data, like previous studies, captures only those women who are able to access the platforms in the first place. In countries like Pakistan, where gender discrimination is particularly acute, women have less access to documentation and financial resources, making it harder to invest in the assets — such as vehicles, fuel, smartphones, and data plans — that they need to get onto gig platforms.
Sadaffe Abid, a social entrepreneur and co-founder of Circle Pakistan, works on digital literacy programs for women in Pakistan. The smartphone is a “gateway to knowledge” that allows women to become financially independent, she said, but there is a massive gender gap in terms of mobile phone ownership in Pakistan: Women are 38% less likely than men to own a mobile phone, 49% less likely to use the mobile internet, and 94% less likely to have a mobile wallet. “If a woman in today’s world is not digitally literate, she is left behind, her mobility is already constrained, and she is completely unconnected with the world,” she said.
In Pakistan, motorcycle ride-hailing and delivery service companies have begun offering training sessions for women in a bid to encourage them to join the gig workforce on wheels. As of December 2019, only 4,052 women had motorcycle driving licenses in Pakistan’s Sindh province, compared with 2.3 million men.
But for Noor, an art student based in Karachi, working as a delivery rider for a local courier company meant ending up with chronic back pain. The company she worked for did not provide workers with top boxes for their motorcycles. Instead, delivery riders were asked to strap insulated delivery bags on their shoulders, often stuffed to the brim with heavy packages. Noor, whose name has also been changed, said her aching back affected her ability to work long hours and cut her income by half. After a six-month stint delivering packages in Karachi, she quit. Now, she has pivoted over to remote work, juggling multiple customer support gigs while monetizing her YouTube channel.
But even on home-based gig platforms, women have to contend with the dual burden of domestic responsibilities and paid employment. As freelance analyst and project manager Faiza Yousuf told Rest of World, the burden of care work makes it difficult for women to extricate themselves from the home. “Since they’re working from home, it is automatically assumed that they are available for their families and, subsequently, work suffers,” she said.
Even when they can start working for platforms, women often can’t use their earnings as a springboard to financial inclusion. As Karachi-based gig worker Asra Rizwan Khan told Rest of World, even something as simple as opening a bank account may be an uphill struggle — banks ask for proof-of-income statements and employment letters, which gig workers and contract-based freelance workers are often unable to provide. Bank employees often don’t understand what freelancing is and don’t consider it on par with other work. “And, as [a] woman, it’s pretty daunting to walk in and demand a bank account,” she says. “There are tons of fintech startups popping up in Pakistan, but no one is talking about the millions of unbanked women in this country.”
Khan said that in July, she stumbled across a LinkedIn post advertising a new microfinance program for entrepreneurs — specifically women. And the comments below the post distressed her. They were mostly men, berating the program for existing and questioning why women needed a microfinance program to begin with. “I thought freelancing and entrepreneurship were empowering women — which they are, certainly,” she said. “But they are changing nothing about the society and the culture we live in.”