The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and the platform economy has affected men and women differently and action is needed to address gender inequality, a report by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) found.

Data collected from workers in the digital platform or gig economy showed that some of the points touted as the main attractions of such work, such as its flexibility, are often disadvantageous to women.

The AI systems that frequently shape these roles have similar gendered impacts. Without changes to the way that the systems are developed and operationalised, the report concludes, gender inequality could be exacerbated within the digital labour market and beyond.

A number of legislative initiatives are underway at the EU level to address both the conditions of gig workers and the risks posed by AI.

However, the report emphasises that changes in the make-up of the groups researching, building and running the systems that organise the platform economy are also needed in order to guard against the reproduction of bias and discrimination within these technologies.

“Artificial intelligence and gig work are parts of the economy of the future, and we need to make sure they’re designed and regulated in a way that protects people”, said Carlien Scheele, EIGE’s Director.

“AI is also increasingly becoming part of our day-to-day lives, so it is good the EU is drawing up legislation on both. This is our opportunity to edit out the age-old stereotypes, sexism and discrimination of the labour market, and to create a modern reality that serves the needs of both women and men”, she added.

While men still make up the majority of platform workers, the share of women engaging in the digital economy has risen in recent years, a trend that pre-dated but accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of the 5,000 gig economy workers surveyed by EIGE, a larger proportion of women said they had chosen the work due to the fact it could be done in tandem with household and caring responsibilities, which women to spend a higher average number of hours on per week outside of their platform work.

Algorithmic management of workforces, namely through the application of technologies such as productivity monitors and time-tracking tools – systems that penalise workers for periods of “low-productivity”, for example – have the potential to hit hardest those looking after children alongside their gig work.

“The gender-specific risks associated with algorithmic management of the workforce (e.g. algorithm bias, discrimination) remain largely unaddressed”, the report said.

Such risks are present at all stages of the employment process, from automated hiring technologies through to systems that track the achievement of universalised targets which might determine promotions or pay, it continued.

The approach to addressing gender inequalities and discrimination in the gig economy requires action on multiple levels, the report concluded, not only by strengthening the regulatory safeguards in place but also by increasing representation within the workforce developing the technologies that will go on to structure the digital labour market.

16% of AI professionals in the EU and UK are women, a percentage which decreases with career progression. The contribution of women and those from underprivileged backgrounds in the “invisible AI workforce” – often the low-paid and outsourced roles central to the gig economy – continues to be “profoundly undervalued in proportion to the knowledge they help to create.”

In general, the report concludes, gig economy workers are under-protected from discrimination and unfair treatment, often due to the fact that they aren’t classified as full employees but rather as being self-employed.

In December, the European Commission presented a proposal to improve working conditions on digital labour platforms, among which would be the implementation of a classification system to ensure that workers are granted the employment status and associated social protections that match the reality of the work they do.

The Commission has also proposed an AI Act: horizontal legislation which takes a risk-based approach to regulate the development and deployment of the tech by identifying key sectors in which its application could pose particular dangers.

The proposal has elicited calls from some, however, for the greater prioritisation of fundamental rights and the introduction of obligations on those deploying AI systems to ensure their own accountability to those impacted by them.

“AI systems and platform work models have exacerbated inequities in the labour market, including relating to gender discrimination but also by systematically surveilling, monitoring and taking decisions impacting working-class and racialised people”, Sarah Chander, senior policy advisor at European Digital Rights (EDRi) told EURACTIV.

“The solutions to this must go beyond diversity requirements and ‘de-biasing’ datasets, but rather introduce governance requirements on companies and institutions using risky AI systems, and empower people affected to challenge harm”, she said.

“So far, the EU’s AI proposal has not prioritised measures addressing the power imbalances linked to the use of AI”, she concluded.



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