Influencers Opinion

Women benefit from the gig economy’s flexibility. But we can make it even better

A look at jobs and economic growth in the state of California

A selection of 101 California Influencers are answering questions critical to the state's future. This week's topic is jobs and economic growth.
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A selection of 101 California Influencers are answering questions critical to the state's future. This week's topic is jobs and economic growth.

Note to readers: Each week through November 2019, a selection of our 101 California Influencers answers a question that is critical to California’s future. Topics include education, healthcare, environment, housing and economic growth. One influencer each week is also invited to write a column that takes a closer look at the issue.

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The gig economy is reshaping lives, culture and participation in the workforce — especially for women.

Due to traditional workplace inflexibility, women are often forced to choose between work and family. Every day, women confront the challenges of managing work, family and the costs of raising children and caring for and supporting loved ones, often with little external support.

The gig economy’s offer of freedom over hours and greater control over earnings comes as a solution to women who want or need to have more flexibility. Indeed, a recent report by Harvard University found women’s participation in the gig economy is now outgrowing that of men. And the benefits to society are many: increased access to talent, new services, greater competition, lower prices and, above all, greater convenience.

However, the current structure of the gig economy also has serious drawbacks. Gig workers receive no workers’ compensation, unemployment benefits, paid vacation, retirement, overtime, disability accommodations, family leave protections, protection from discrimination or sexual harassment, or the right to form unions. The lack of these protections leaves gig workers at greater risk of low wages, exploitation and harassment — something policymakers have been slow to respond to and prevent.

Opinion

We can bring the benefits of the gig economy to many more women — and the economy as a whole — if we make some thoughtful improvements to the workplace that address the challenges without destroying the benefits that have made the gig economy develop and grow so quickly.

We need a new social contract with respect to the gig economy and part-time work. We need to think about what constitutes work and explore what types of social protection policies and infrastructure we need to protect workers in this new world. Policies and programs relating to issues such parental leave, childcare, pensions and harassment must change to ensure that they support women and men working in informal settings or from remote locations.

This new social contract should include portable benefits that attach to the worker, not the job. While there are numerous proposals to provide them, most center around the idea that gig-driven companies would pay into a fund that would then be used to provide insurance for their part-time workers.

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State paid family and medical leave programs offer another model of a portable benefit system. California is one of the few states in the nation to have such a program, in which workers contribute to a social insurance system through a payroll tax and can then access paid leave to care for a new child or their own or a family member’s health. California has the opportunity to set the bar again by implementing Gov. Gavin Newsom’s of six months of paid family leave for all Californians.

Our economy could gain even more participation from women if traditional companies took a cue from the gig economy and made flexible work schedules the norm.

When I served as Vice President at Gap Inc., we measured performance by metrics, not by time spent at the office. It is no accident that Gap was also one of the first Fortune 500 companies to show equal pay for equal work.

Control over the time and location of work is the key to closing gender gaps, according to research by Claudia Goldin, an economist at Harvard.

We all win by boosting women’s participation in the workforce. The more we can get women working on terms that make sense for them and their families, the better it will for our communities, our economy and our country.

Debbie Mesloh is president of the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women. She is also a California Jobs and Economic Growth Influencer for McClatchy’s California Influencers series.

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