What’s the background? Emerging platforms are striving to safeguard women who face disadvantages due to the challenges of juggling unpaid caregiving responsibilities at home with gig employment.

  • Platforms overlook significant domestic responsibilities
  • Female gig workers experience deactivation and low ratings as a harsh reality
  • Fresh algorithms led by women seek to combat discrimination

In cities like Johannesburg, Rio de Janeiro, and Nairobi, workers in roles such as cleaners, delivery couriers, and taxi drivers are collaborating to develop new applications. These apps aim to provide a more equitable balance between their gig work and the demands of family life, bypassing biased algorithms that penalize women who prioritize their household responsibilities over their jobs.

From Brazil to South Africa, female gig workers are actively engaged in creating their own applications, with the goal of addressing what they perceive as deeply ingrained gender bias on existing job platforms.

Selinah Masilela, speaking from South Africa during a phone interview, emphasized the importance of these initiatives: “It is important that we create these apps because we are the beneficiaries, we know what we go through as women and as domestic workers.”

Technology plays a central role both in the problem and its potential resolution.

Digital researchers and activists point out that algorithms employed on gig work platforms frequently disadvantage women who cannot accept jobs as frequently as men. This results in lower customer ratings and potential deactivation, with limited opportunities for communication with the platform.

Globally, women shoulder approximately three times more unpaid caregiving responsibilities than men, a burden that was further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as indicated by data from U.N. Women.

A report released earlier this year by the rights group ActionAid revealed that gig work algorithms exhibit bias against women who are “unable to respond as quickly or work as many hours as men due to unpaid caregiving responsibilities.”

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The report, which drew from a survey of over 5,000 gig workers in 15 countries, also highlighted that women typically work fewer hours than men, contributing to a gender wage gap. Safety concerns often lead many women to avoid jobs that require working after dark or in risky locations.

Natalia Rodriguez, a women’s economic rights policy expert at ActionAid, expressed her perspective on these algorithms, stating, “I would say (these algorithms are) sexist because that is the system we are a part of … that is very blind to women’s needs and unpaid care work, yet unpaid care work is such an important part of our economy.”

In Cape Town, on August 8, 2014, a janitor passes by an African Bank branch.

In Cape Town, on August 8, 2014, a janitor passes by an African Bank branch.

Algorithmic governance

Over the last three years, Fairuz Mullagee, a social justice researcher in South Africa, has collaborated with nearly 50 domestic workers in Cape Town and Johannesburg to create We Care, a platform that empowers women with algorithmic control.

These women had a say in determining pay rates, working hours, and the ideal algorithmic configuration. They also received digital literacy training. Mullagee, based at the University of the Western Cape’s Centre for Transformative Regulation of Work, emphasized that We Care is owned by its workforce, and any surplus generated by the app, set to launch in November, will be reinvested in the enterprise.

We Care’s algorithm connects women with work based on their geographic location, thereby saving them both money and time. It also ensures equal access to opportunities for all women, preventing negative ratings due to family emergencies.

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While technology alone may not be a panacea for all the sector’s challenges, it represents a promising beginning, according to Mullagee.

Decent work

ActionAid identified several other apps with similar principles as We Care, such as Kenya’s female-only An Nisa ride-hailing app and nearly a dozen female-led platforms in Brazil. These platforms prioritize fairness and accountability, always putting the rights of women workers at the forefront.

Mehnaz Sarwar, the founder of An Nisa, explained their approach, saying, “We wanted to develop an app where the algorithms are transparent. It is not biased in favor of the number of hours a driver has worked but solely based on the driver’s location and which driver is nearest.”

An Nisa, which launched in Kenya in October and now has over 120 drivers, goes beyond ride-hailing by providing first-aid training, self-defense classes, and a car rescue and repair service.

Eunice Machoka, a single mother of three registered on An Nisa as well as more popular apps like Uber and Bolt, expressed a preference for An Nisa due to higher payments. She mentioned, “The rates are better – sometimes almost double. But the app is still new, so the number of customers is still much less.”

These platforms are part of what Rodriguez describes as a “cooperativism explosion,” helping workers secure “fair wages…freedom from violence, and ownership and control over their data.”

On October 10, 2017, a female taxi driver operates her vehicle on a prominent street in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

On October 10, 2017, a female taxi driver operates her vehicle on a prominent street in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Advocating for Respect

Aline Os found herself in a challenging situation as one of just two women in a team of 100 when she worked for a delivery company in São Paulo, Brazil. She recalled it as an extremely sexist environment where she often had to stand up for herself.

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However, this experience of sexism inspired her to take action. In 2017, Os founded Señoritas Courier, a gig-worker cooperative that exclusively hires women and transgender individuals.

Unlike larger platforms in Brazil, Señoritas doesn’t focus on meal deliveries, which are often characterized by high speed and low pay. Instead, the cooperative utilizes a team of bicyclists to deliver non-food items. Currently, the cooperative has 20 members, with nine of them working in delivery roles.

Jacira Sousa, who joined Señoritas during the pandemic, now balances gig work with other jobs to maintain a steady income. She believes that her hard work will eventually pay off.

Señoritas has established partnerships with researchers to develop an algorithm using the vast amount of data it has collected over the years. This data includes information on distances traveled, time spent on each delivery, and the corresponding earnings.

Sousa, amidst her various day jobs, has also learned coding and hopes to transition to the tech side of Señoritas. She explained, “The idea is to empower people to do other things at the collective. One can’t do deliveries forever.”

According to Os, the cooperative aims to create a “humane” algorithm that fairly matches supply and demand, ensuring that every cyclist receives equitable work and compensation. Moreover, this algorithm will be open-sourced, allowing other cooperatives to use and adapt it for their own operations.

“We want an algorithm that leads to decent work,” Os emphasized.

While legislative progress has been made to protect gig workers in various places, such as Singapore, Brazil, Chile, and the European Union, ActionAid now advocates for grassroots efforts as well.

Natalia Rodriguez of ActionAid noted, “Women are the ones that have the knowledge to come up with the solutions best tailored for what they need and the changes they want to see in the world

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