gender bias

The freelance work culture could actually put women at a further disadvantage

A study shows that the gig economy may strengthen the invisible advantage men have at work.

Martin Schneider often got things done faster than a female colleague, Nicole Hallberg, who worked at the same small employment services agency. He figured this was because of his extra experience.

One day, however, a client suddenly began acting “impossible,” “rude” and “dismissive,” as Schneider recalled in a series of tweets.

He soon realised why. Schneider had inadvertently used Hallberg’s email signature in his messages to the client. (They used a shared inbox.) When he told the client he was actually Martin and not Nicole, there was “immediate improvement” in the exchange.

Intrigued, Schneider and Hallberg agreed to do an experiment in which they switched email signatures for two weeks. What happened? Hallberg had the “most productive week of her career.” Meanwhile, Schneider was in “hell” as clients condescended and questioned everything he suggested.

Summing up the lesson, Schneider tweeted: “I wasn’t any better at the job than she was, I just had this invisible advantage.”

Sexism in the workplace

In many ways, the result of their experiment should not come as a surprise.

Sexism in the workplace is well documented in surveys and in academic literature. Recent reports of overt harassment in the private and public sectors confirm that it is alive and well. Further, the data show persistent gender gaps in pay, hiring and promotions across occupations and skill levels.

My own research looks at how the burgeoning gig economy – in which jobs are short-term or freelance rather than permanent – affects gender and other forms of labour discrimination. A study we recently conducted with colleagues at the Center for Distributive, Labor and Social Studies in Argentina suggests an increasingly freelance workforce may make the problem of male privilege even worse.

Maria and José

Discrimination in the labour market is notoriously difficult to study.

For decades, social scientists have tried to disentangle differences in ability, career preferences, attitudes towards risk and negotiation and other worker characteristics from true discrimination by employers. However, as economic transactions increasingly migrate to peer-to-peer platforms, this perspective misses an important piece of the discrimination puzzle: that of the interactions between gender of the employer and gender of the job seeker.

For example: Do gender stereotypes also put women at a disadvantage when they’re the ones doing the hiring? Are women less likely to negotiate salaries and promotions with a male employer?

To answer these questions, we designed the following experiment: we randomly selected and invited 2,800 freelancers on Nubelo, a large online platform for short-term job contracts based in Spain that’s now part of Freelancer.com, to apply for a job to transcribe and edit an hourlong marketing video.

Each invitation came from the same employer, a fictitious marketing services agency. Half of the freelancers (randomly selected) received the email from “Maria,” while the rest learned about the job opportunity from “José.” In addition, half of the invitations asked freelancers to name their price for the job, while the other half offered a flat pay of €250 ($301).

Male privilege at work

The results confirmed our intuition: male privilege not only hurts women when they’re looking for work, it also puts them at a disadvantage when they’re the ones doing the hiring.

In our study, José was able to solicit significantly lower rates from prospective job candidates than Maria, even though the work was identical. Candidates offered to do the job for an average of €124 when José sent the invitation, while they demanded €158 from Maria (or about 27% more for the same exact job).

When we control for differences in the characteristics of the job seekers, such as experience and reputation on the site, the female employer penalty remains essentially unchanged. More interestingly, this result obtained for both male and female job seekers.

Were women less willing to negotiate with José or Maria? Not in our study. In fact we found no statistically significant differences in negotiation preferences across our four employer gender-freelancer gender combinations. Female freelancers were just as likely as men to respond to our email when it invited them to name their price, and it made no difference whether the email came from Maria or José.

In other words, as long as the rules of the game are clearly laid out (that freelancers should name their price), female job applicants were willing to bargain as much as male applicants, and the gender of the other party (the employer) did not seem to affect this result.

Almost a quarter of Americans said they earned money from the gig economy in 2016. Photo credit: Charles Platiau//Reuters
Almost a quarter of Americans said they earned money from the gig economy in 2016. Photo credit: Charles Platiau//Reuters

Rise of the gig economy

An increasing number of people make a living in the gig economy. In a 2016 poll, 24% of Americans reported earning money from gig economy platforms, and the majority said that this income is important or essential to make ends meet. In this context, what are the implications of our findings?

Some claim the rise of “alternative work” arrangements could offer opportunities for women to close the remaining labour market gaps. Our results suggest a more uncertain future. On the one hand, they indicate that women may gain from workplace environments in which the rules of bargaining are unambiguous, as studies show that men often have the upper hand when the rules are less clear.

On the other, our results suggest that the gig economy could potentially exacerbate gender discrimination. In the hyper-competitive, fast-paced world of online labour, hiring and wages are determined on the basis of little verifiable information about each individual worker. These conditions favour the activation of stereotypes about “appropriate” jobs for women, their productivity and their willingness to bargain. Further, as traditional worker-employer relations are replaced by peer-to-peer transactions on a global scale, the application of anti-discrimination labour law becomes challenging.

As we look at the impact of technology on the future of work, there are some reasons for optimism but plenty for concern. The truth is, while technology extends our capabilities as human beings, it can not, unfortunately, eliminate our biases and prejudices.

Hernán Galperin, Research Associate Professor of Communication, University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.