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How the digital economy is holding women back

While women perform the bulk of unpaid and low-paid digital labor, men are reaping the profits.  


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Internet Culture

Posted on May 19, 2014   Updated on May 31, 2021, 7:12 am CDT


We live in a hustler economy, as New York magazine recently informed us. It’s a world of making a living through odd jobs and creative re-purposing of our lives; our cars become taxis, our houses hotels, our living rooms cramped offices for low-paying freelance work. Particularly in media, the unpaid internship has become an unspoken job and resume requirement, reinforcing the existing social and class stratification in the media landscape. When only the wealthy can afford to enter the media, the only stories that are told are those of the wealthy.

In “Pixel and Dimed,” Fast Company’s Sarah Kessler defines the current market as a system of “hard work and low pay,” one that “puts workers at a disadvantage.” It’s astonishingly similar to the piecework economy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

People made their living by picking up bits and pieces of labor, paid by the piece, not by the hour. Most of those people were women and children working in crowded tenements—or in factories like the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where women bent their heads over rows of sewing machines for hours every day in a sweatshop that became a charnel house thanks to a stray spark on March 25, 1911.

Laborers in the piecework economy perform freelance writing and editing for a growing number of companies, which may pay pennies per word, if that; some offer compensation in the form of split advertising revenue, forcing contributors to gamble. Content farms encourage freelancers to churn out content at a desperate rate with pay set at only a few dollars an article, while copy editors labor through massive projects, earning a fraction of their worth. Such firms often abuse independent contractor laws, providing freelancers with far more work and duties than should be assigned to an IC, yet refusing to put them on regular payroll in order to save money.

Others set themselves to work at Amazon Mechanical Turk and similar outsourced digital projects. Today’s world for freelancers is not one of periodic large commissions from respected publications, but a trickle of tiny checks cobbled together into something resembling a living.

Many freelancers are among the 76 percent of Americans with no savings, no funds to fall back on in an emergency. Historically, they’ve been uninsured, and many are struggling with health insurance reform, which doesn’t quite know what to do with freelancers and their complex income. Health care reform was built for people who receive regular wages from employers, not for the growing self-employed sector.

We are all hustlers, but we are not all equal. Statistics show that 75 percent of unpaid interns are women, and in 2012, 55 percent of freelancers in the digital economy were women. Many argued this was a positive development, allowing women to set their own schedules, control their income sources, explore alternate careers, and engage in the economy.

But is it? The highly gendered nature of freelance work obscures darker truths, like the fact that as women perform the bulk of unpaid and low-paid labor, men are reaping the profits.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, where another startup bubble is creating a frenzied tech economy and hiring is through the roof at companies large and small, relatively few women occupy boards or head up their own startups. Lots of women, however, are performing internships, freelance labor, contract labor, and other low-wage work to support such startups. It’s women who are building the code, writing the copy, and providing the customer service, while the boys’ club continues much as it has.

On social media, women make up the majority of users, and are the most active. Women of color in particular play a vital and vibrant role in social media, performing vital unpaid work that is not only a form of community activism, but a way to add value to the platforms they work on. They have become the product, an extremely valuable one from the perspective of the companies that own the platforms they work on—like Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook. Laurel Ptak has suggested that it’s time for Wages for Facebook, recognizing the emotional and monetary value of the labor performed on social media every day.

If it sounds like a joke, it shouldn’t. She’s tapping into the same issues that ‘70s feminists challenged when they called for wages for housework, a feminist demand that still hasn’t been met. Her cry for equality is a recognition of the role the digital economy plays in our lives and the very gendered structure of that economy.

Digital labor has become feminized, and there are clear and present gendered inequalities in the digital economy, ones that mirror those observed in other economies. With women offering their labor for free or at low cost, the digital economy puts further pressure on women to perform their jobs without complaint or commentary. Women who do strike back at unfair conditions in the workplace find themselves punished; Julie Ann Horvath, for example, was pushed out of Github, and she’s far from the only woman in tech who’s found herself fired or forced to leave in similar circumstances.

With fast food workers taking to the streets to challenge their own low wages and horrific working conditions, the situation of women in the digital economy seems all the more stark, as does the natural next step. One woman alone can’t “lean in” her way to the top (as Jill Abramson learned last week), but a collective of women working together can make a radical shift in the functions of the digital economy.

It’s time for freelancers to unionize. It’s time to break down the gendered divides in the digital economy and demand equality in pay and working conditions. It’s also time to ask why so many are relying on a fragile, grueling, stressful economy that—in the long term—benefits few of us.

S.E. Smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California. Ou focuses on social issues, particularly gender, prison reform, disability rights, environmental justice, queerness, class, and the intersections thereof, and has a special interest in rural subjects.

Photo via anjan58/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: May 19, 2014, 9:30 am CDT