Skip to main content

Jobs on digital work platforms bring mixed results for women


Rapid-paced technological developments have disrupted traditional employment models and diversified the way people provide and consume goods and services. 

Women all over the world are now selling goods on e-commerce platforms and on social media, offering freelance services online or connecting with customers through apps to provide in-person services. These new forms of labour in the platform economy hold promise for greater flexibility, autonomy and economic independence that traditional, offline labour markets do not necessarily offer. 

While technology can create opportunities for women and empower them, it can also reinforce inequities, create biases, and mirror the traditional barriers that preclude women from entering the labour force.

In response to these emerging challenges, IDRC supported research on women’s experiences in platform jobs in Cambodia, India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand. It looked at the impact of the platform economy on women’s economic empowerment, their ability to make decisions and their role within families and societies. The research also looked at the platform economy’s impact on existing gender norms, social security, and benefits, as well as policies needed to protect workers under these new, digitally mediated work arrangements.

The researchers found that while women across all countries reported positive impacts on income and some forms of empowerment, the inequities they faced traditionally were being replicated in platform jobs and could exclude them from engaging in the digital labour market.

Research highlights

  • Women in five Asian countries reported benefiting from work sourced through digital platforms, while facing the same inequities found in traditional employment.
  • Drawn to the flexible nature of platform work, they found that the blurred working hours aggravated their work-life balance.
  • Women’s ability to navigate digital platforms and thrive on them depended on assets like education, owning a digital device and a mode of transportation.
  • In platform-mediated work, women experiencing physical harassment and sexual violence often did not have adequate forms of protection.

The flexible work paradox

Short-term project-based work in the platform economy, known as gig work, lets women choose when and how much they work. In a study of Thailand’s advanced platform economy carried out by JustJobs Network, women cited flexibility, along with income, autonomy and cost savings, as the main advantages for engaging in platform-based work. However, women also reported that despite the flexible work arrangements, blurred working hours negatively impacted their work-life balance. 

The Philippine Institute for Development Studies undertook surveys in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic and found that women, particularly mothers, valued the flexible nature of digital work and online training opportunities. Despite this flexibility, the findings also show that the Filipino government’s online training program, digitaljobsPH, has seen a yearly decline in training completion rates among women.

In the research led by JustJobs Network in Thailand and Cambodia, women reported doing 12.6 hours per week of care work versus 7.5 hours per week for men. This motivates many to look for online jobs, as explained by a 44-year-old Thai woman who said: “it was the very fact that I wanted to take care of my family that I took up online work in the first place.” The flexibility in these new jobs thus tends to reinforce the traditional gender norms and women’s disproportionate responsibility for unpaid work in addition to paid work.

In Sri Lanka and India, the research led by LirneAsia and Centre for Policy Research found that the tight response times for freelance work can put women with care-giving responsibilities at a disadvantage. They can get penalized for their non-responsiveness or inability to take up work. 

A young woman sitting in her living room in front of a laptop and wearing earphones rubs her temple.
Michael Edwards
The unsecure nature of online work in the platform economy, lack of labour protection and career progression and the competitive dynamics of platform pricing and models limit women’s empowerment and can reinforce biased gender norms.

Autonomous yet isolated 

Platform work offers financial stability, which can be particularly important for women constrained by rigid patriarchal norms. But when the work is done in the home, it can limit women’s mobility and offer little opportunity to engage in professional networks outside the home. The isolated nature of this work also prevents collective bargaining and the ability of workers to secure their rights and address their grievances.

In Thailand and Cambodia, the researchers found that while women’s personal income may increase, the unsecure nature of the jobs, lack of career progression, inadequate regulation of platforms, lack of labour protection for workers, and the competitive dynamics of platform pricing and models, limit women’s empowerment and can reinforce biased gender norms. 

The informal nature of this work is reflected in how platform work gets classified by countries in their labour force statistics, which in turn directly impacts the forms of protections and safety nets extended to platform workers. 

A question of assets and skills level

The researchers observed a duality in the platform labour market. On the one hand, highly skilled workers can easily navigate digital platforms and expand their careers. They tend to be younger and more mobile and have easier access to technology. In contrast, low-skilled platform workers are concentrated in low-paying jobs and occupations traditionally ascribed to women, such as beauty-salon and wellness services.

Regardless of the type of platform-based work — online or location-specific — all studies found that the assets women can draw on are critical in determining their ability to thrive in the platform economy. These assets include skills and education, digital devices and modes of transportation for location-specific work such as transport and domestic work, internet access and credit. Social and professional networks, as well as knowledge needed to navigate various platform modalities, also impact whether women can benefit from opportunities provided by the platform economy.

Algorithmic pressures and biases

Precarity in the platform economy can become more pronounced as technology advances. The rating and reward systems, pricing models and unpredictable algorithms that affect how often a worker’s goods or services are promoted on the platforms or how many gigs they get lend volatility to platform-based work. This can reinforce existing gender barriers such as mobility constraints, care work, time restrictions, gender-based violence and harassment for online gig workers. 

Home-based workers in Thailand and Cambodia reported the impact of the ever-changing algorithms and platform rules on their incomes and the stability of their businesses. For example, a 33-year-old skin-care retailer highlighted the challenges of promoting her business on social media: “if we want to advertise our posts, they’re asking us for increasingly more money while decreasing our post visibility.” 

In platform-mediated work, women are experiencing online and physical harassment and sexual violence, often without adequate forms of protection or immediate redressal of the grievances. According to research conducted by the Just Economy and Labor Institute in Thailand, for example, 35% of platform-based women massage therapists reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment while working. In its study in Cambodia and Thailand, the JustJobs Network found that among all types of platforms, social media has a higher risk profile for online sexual harassment given that women promoting products and services on these channels preferred to be visible to engage with customers.

A woman wearing a red sari and a blue protective face mask leans against the open door of a black car, on the driver’s side.
New forms of labour in the platform economy hold promise for greater flexibility, autonomy and economic independence that traditional labour markets do not necessarily offer.

Building an inclusive platform economy for women

Each research team worked directly with policymakers and platform companies to devise action to address barriers.

The Philippines Institute of Development Studies, for example, worked with the Philippine Statistics Authority to revise the classification of gig work in the Philippine Standard Occupation, a statistical classification of occupational groups. This critical step is necessary to ensure that gig work is valued, measured and covered under labour laws and social-protection policy.

In India, is working closely with private-sector actors such as the Ola Mobility Institute to develop a case study for women’s participation in Ola, a ride-hailing application, given the lack of women drivers.

In Thailand, the Just Economy and Labor Institute used the research to help voice the perspectives of workers. It helped nurture leadership skills among platform workers through their participation in consultations to recommend updates to the Thai social-protection scheme and a platform-labour law working group under the labour subcommittee of the Thai House of Representatives. In June 2021, the institute facilitated a workers’ campaign, with the support of platform companies offering cleaning services, to demand free and accessible COVID-19 testing kits and vaccines for frontline platform workers.

The research initiative showed the critical need for research and data to understand the impacts of new forms of economic activity, particularly in contexts with high degrees of informal employment and lack of registration and social protection.

IDRC is continuing to support the production of such evidence and to help identify ways in which women and disadvantaged groups can equally participate in and benefit from new economic opportunities. For example, a new initiative, FutureWorks, aims to channel responses to disruptions caused by technology and climate change towards resilient skills development and inclusive, decent employment.