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They create web pages and write computer code. They drive Lyfts and Ubers and deliver your groceries. They'll house-sit or walk your dog. They go by descriptions such as freelancer, independent contractor, self-employed, and gig worker. And increasingly, they are women.
Just how important are women to the gig economy? A study released in 2019 using IRS data revealed that women accounted for 55% of the growth in independent contracting between 2001 and 2016 when female employment was relatively flat. The authors noted that this finding "may represent a broad-based, structural shift in the labor market, particularly for women."
Mind you, these experts said that even before a global pandemic struck.
Few people escaped the COVID-19 crisis without some change to their career or workday routine. As a group, however, women faced a disproportionate number of challenges. Globally, women's job losses due to COVID-19 were 1.8 times greater than men's, mainly due to cuts in industries such as hospitality, retail, personal care, and food service.
And workers weren't the only ones being sent home. As daycare centers closed and schools switched to distance learning, children needed monitoring. Whether unemployed or working their job from home, women took on the lion's share of that responsibility — and its accompanying stress.
Many women found financial and scheduling relief through gig work, and they're reluctant to give it up despite the increasing number of companies reopening and rehiring. These newcomers join veteran female freelancers happy with greater control over what they do, where they do it, and when.
Attracted by flexibility
A survey by Hyperwallet asked 2,000 female gig workers the top benefits of working in the gig economy. Leaving all other answers in the dust, "flexibility" topped the list.
For many women, freedom from the traditional 9-to-5 workday assists with familial obligations. Considering 70% of female gig workers are the primary caregiver in their homes, it's not surprising that gig work is an appealing option for women with families. When the kids arrive home from school, they can be there, chaperone a field trip, run errands at off times, be home for repair appointments, handle snow days and sick days, and cart children to after-school activities.
Women enjoy gig work for reasons unrelated to their families, too.
"A huge pro of being a contractor is the freedom to travel and work from anywhere," says Suzanne Casamento, a contract instructional designer for the last 20 years. "I recently got rid of my LA apartment and everything in it and headed to the Caribbean for six months. If I had a full-time office job, I could never do that."
In addition to better work-life balance, some female independent contractors see this type of work as good for their careers. For instance, the Hyperwallet survey found that 86% of female gig workers believe gig work offers the opportunity to make equal pay to their male counterparts.
As noted by Eden Cheng, co-founder of PeopleFinderFree, "One of the main reasons as to why more women are flocking towards a gig economy comes down to the fact that it has allowed many women to start taking up jobs that have traditionally been dominated by men, be it taxi driving through Uber to getting more job opportunities in technical fields like computer programming through freelancing on platforms like Upwork. The key takeaway is that gig work is now offering women better opportunities and financial freedom because unlike the barriers present in corporate business, there is more opportunity for equal pay and improved work/life balance."
While many women make their living entirely from independent work, others partake in gig work in addition to permanent employment. This ability to take on assignments according to individual needs gives women opportunities to increase their financial well-being.
This is the case for Jenna Frigo, who recently entered the gig economy by joining Rover.com. "I basically walk dogs or stop in and check in on dogs," she says. "For me, it's not something I'm doing instead of regular employment. I still have my day job, but this is something I do on the side on my way home from work and occasionally on weekends. It's normally good for $30 to $80 per day. I like the flexibility, the extra money, and that I can do it outside my day job without having to commit to a strict schedule."
Caveats of gig work
Being a one-woman operation certainly has its positives. However, it also comes with possible negatives, especially for those for whom gig work is their only employment.
"There are still drawbacks of the gig economy that often weigh heavily on many women who are considering making the shift to this line of work," Cheng says. "For instance, within the gig economy, there's an inconsistent stream of income, which can be a deterrent for many working mothers, most especially. Moreover, unlike corporate jobs, gig work doesn't provide job benefits like maternity leave, which is another major inconvenience for many working mothers."
While various platforms make it easier now than in the past to find gig work, assignments aren't always desirable or abundant. Paychecks get issued per agreement rather than weekly or biweekly and may take up to 30 days to receive. Taxes do not get taken out, making independent contractors responsible for their paperwork and estimated payments.
Gig workers do not have paid sick or vacation days or get a company-sponsored retirement plan. Because independent contractors lack health insurance through a gig employer, they must obtain it through other means for themselves and their families. In many cases, women and their children get covered by a spouse's plan at a traditional job. This scenario potentially adds another reason why women are becoming gig workers at a faster rate than men. Couples sometimes determine that one needs to maintain regular employment, and men often possess a higher salary and a more attractive benefits plan.
Despite these challenges, however, many women still find satisfaction in the gig economy. As aptly summarized by Izolda Trakhtenberg, who has been working in the gig economy for years as a workshop facilitator, speaker and musician, "It takes courage to be your own boss, accountant, marketer, and support staff. But you live and work on your own terms, and that makes all the difference."