Women in the gig economy - is the UK taking a backwards step?

Women in the gig economy - is the UK taking a backwards step?

Being in the 21st century, you’d think the age-old debate about women in the workplace would be something well and truly of the past. But with the rise of the gig economy, and women working in this sector opting for stereotypical roles in the labour market, is the UK taking a step back?

Every month, the Women and Work All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), meet with parliamentarians, businesses and stakeholders to discuss key issues about women in work.

The group, chaired by Labour MP Jessica Phillips and Conservative MP Gillian Keegan, has been focusing this year on why there is still a gender disparity in pay and skills.

The latest APPG meetings, led by Keegan, discussed women in the gig economy and whether schools should be doing more to promote female entrepreneurship. 

There are currently 4.85 million self-employed people in the UK and over a third of that population are women. And according to the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce), 1.1 million of all self-employed are working in the gig economy.

Working in the gig economy has proven to be attractive for many women, particularly working mothers, who benefit from the flexible hours and independence. In fact, the number of mothers working as freelancers has increased by 79 per cent between 2008 and 2016.

While this way of work seems to be becoming more and more popular, it still poses many of the gendered challenges of the wider labour market. The biggest being women choosing to go for stereotypical roles such as domestic and care work.

IPSE’s politics and external affairs assistant, Imogen Farhan, who spoke at the meeting on the gig economy, highlighted that the rise in female self-employment has “primarily been driven by choice”. 

She said: “Choice is typically a good thing and these digital platforms have provided an alternative to the traditional 9-5.

“Currently, 93 per cent of women say it is hard to combine a successful career with caring responsibilities. The gig economy offers opportunities to make this more manageable. 

“This is because the gig economy facilitates flexibility unparalleled in the traditional workplace. Freelancers can choose when, where and who they work for, enabling people to take greater control of their work/life balance.”

With one in seven freelancers now working mums, Imogen went on to claim that many women still tend to “shoulder most of the parenting responsibilities”.

She added: “As this sector grows, public policy needs to adapt to ensure self-employment remains a positive choice, striking the right balance between flexibility and fairness.”

Imogen suggested three key areas for policy development to help self-employed working mums.

The first is to introduce a statutory definition of self-employment in order to bring some much-needed clarity around employment status. 

The second is parental benefits; currently self-employed women are only eligible for maternity allowance rather than statutory maternity pay, meaning there is a six-week period where they do not receive 90 per cent of their earnings. 

And finally, to improve education and training for entrepreneurs, specifically tailored for women.

Following the meeting, Keegan said: “Overall,  The development of the modern gig economy has been positive, particularly for working mothers, who often go for roles with greater flexibility.

“I think what is clear is that there is an opportunity for development in a positive way and if we do not take it, it could have a negative impact. 

“The gig economy platforms bring people together and there needs to be a discussion about rights, making some changes and recommendations. To do this, we first need to raise awareness.”