Is The Sharing Economy Feminist?

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We are minimising the uncomfortable economic reality of many professional women participating in the sharing economy.

The sharing economy has been described as a ‘decentralization of wealth and power’, with the rise of the likes of AirBnB, Uber and Lyft driving the growth of a new disruptive economic model based on the idea of access over ownership. It has facilitated the rise of the ‘Micro-Entrepreneur’, with peer-to-peer sharing platforms such as Etsy boasting more than 1 million sellers on their platform.

The micro-entrepreneur movement has been described as “giving women the freedom to “build their brands, growing their businesses, and creating their creations — in their own ways.” On the surface, this is great news for everyone, with new online marketplaces popping up every day giving both women and men more flexibility and autonomy over their career choices.

Yet we know that it is female entrepreneurs who dominate sites like Etsy, currently making up 88% of Etsy’s seller base in the US. We also know that many successful female sellers dubbed ‘micro-entrepreneurs’  manage their Etsy business only as a supplementary income to their traditional income sources.

If women were able to make a comfortable living being a full-time micro-entrepreneur, this would signal a change in the increase of equal opportunity and pay for women. However this is rarely the case. A 2013 report released by Etsy, based on an online survey conducted with 94,000 sellers showed:

Etsy sellers, who are mostly women, report higher levels of education than most Americans—yet, the average median income for Etsy sellers is just $44,900, ten percent lower than the national average. Twenty-six percent of Etsy sellers earn under $25,000 in annual household income.

“Could it be a coincidence that the average Etsy seller is female and college-educated, yet is still grossly underpaid?” asked Yahoo’s Hayley Phelan.

Professional women who work extremely hard should be acknowledged for successfully juggling multiple job ventures. And there are clear examples of successful women participating in the share economy, including “NY-based artist Carrie Eigbrett who runs two small businesses, a photography biz and an Etsy shop, and works full-time.”

Yet by praising these women for essentially working 60-80hr/weeks, we are also inadvertently minimising the uncomfortable economic reality of many professional women participating in the sharing economy.

Who are the real beneficiaries of the sharing economy?

The sharing economy is a multi-billion dollar industry, which we can tell by looking at the projected worth of major players; Uber alone is eyeing a valuation of 50 billion. Since Etsy’s IPO, the company has been valued at approximately 3.5 billion. According to Slate.com’s Amanda Hess, “Etsy sellers may be collectively swapping $895 million annually, but most of them [women] aren’t seeing much of that cash, and they’re not passing it on to any employees, either.”

It wouldn’t be a stretch to assert that it is predominately men who are the investors, executives and founders driving the Silicon Valley start-ups that are shaping and profiting from the share economy. Silicon Valley is notorious for its lack of gender diversity, compounded by the statistics that show women are increasingly leaving their tech jobs mid-career.

According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, over 56% of women with STEM expertise will leave the industry over the course of their careers. The recent controversy over Ellen Pao’s gender discrimination suit against SV investment firm Kleiner-Perkins has only intensified the debate around Silicon Valley’s ‘bro culture’, as one of the major factors driving women to leave the tech industry in alarming numbers.

Freelancer Union’s Sara Horowitz recently stated ‘freelancing is feminist’, noting that “a clear majority of full-time freelancers—53%—are women.” Horowitz suggests that women, fed up with the lack of equal pay and opportunities in the male-dominated corporate world, have increasingly turned to freelancing as a way to achieve financial independence.

While I mostly agree with Horowitz’s view, the fact also remains that more often than not, freelancing remains a secondary income source for most Americans. A recent report commissioned by Freelancers Union and Elance-oDesk showed that 55% of the respondents that identified as ‘freelancers’ are also likely to have other income sources. In which case, if women are indeed freelancing more than men, and driving the micro-entrepreneur movement, it begs the question:

Why is it predominantly women who are juggling multiple job ventures and freelancing gigs to make it work in today’s economy?

The sharing economy purports to be a democratization of economic power, one that will give people more financial freedom and flexibility to create a career path on their own terms. Yet all the examples of how the sharing economy has helped to ’empower’ women distracts from the macro reality that it is overwhelmingly men who continue to be the financial beneficiaries of this economic movement.

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