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Special issue on ‘the gender of the platform economy’

How public policies could favour a feminist transition from the industrial to the digital platform era in a COVID-19 context

Co-sponsored by the Digital Commons (Dimmons) and the K-riptography and Information Security for Open Networks (KISON) research groups of the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3), Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), in collaboration with the Sharing Cities Action programme – a joint action with the City Council of Barcelona.

The Platform economy (PE) – also known as the Collaborative Platform Economy or Sharing Economy – is used as a floating signifier for the collaborative production, consumption and distribution of work and capital among disseminated groups of people supported by digital platforms. The PE is growing rapidly and exponentially, generating great interest. The situation created by COVID-19 has accelerated the digitalisation and platformisation of the economy and has provided the conditions for an economic model transformation, stressing the need to put life at its centre.

One of the distinctive characteristics of collaborative production through a digital platform is its versatility: cases of peer-to-peer production and consumption based on collaborative initiatives supported by digital platforms have emerged in a wide variety of sectors and areas of business. At least thirty-three types of economic activities have been identified (Fuster Morell & Espelt, 2019), from software production to home-sharing, mobility and food delivery. But more than just a sector of the economy, or a model, PE is becoming a pillar of the emerging model of production and consumption, which is gradually disrupting most sectors of economic activity. The role of manufacturers in the industrial era seems to have been replaced by the platforms in the digital one.

Another characteristic of collaborative production is the variety of forms it may take: from social economy, scaling up platforms or open cooperatives (Scholz & Schneider, 2016) to that arising from the most ferocious capitalist corporate spirit (Srnicek, 2017).

PLATFORM ECONOMY AND GENDER

Since its origin, the PE was greeted as a more open, inclusive, democratic and ecological model when compared to the traditional economy (Algar, 2007; Botsman & Rogers, 2011; Cohen & Kietzmann, 2014; Heinrichs, 2013; Gansky, 2010). Virtually all exchange sites and digital platforms within the platform economy explicitly advocate for open access and equality of opportunity (Schor et al., 2016) and, with a focus on the gender dimension, this model has been celebrated as a flexible alternative to traditional employment for those with family responsibilities, especially women (Singer, 2014). Nevertheless, the PE presents challenges for gender equality (ibid.) and different authors argue that this model reproduces gender, race, and class hierarchies and biases (Edelman & Luca, 2014; Schor, 2014).

In the study of the relationship between PE and gender, there is currently a significant gap between what is known and what is wished to be known (Schoenbaum, 2016). There are some contributions to the debate and the majority of the articles that discuss the issue do so in a more generic framework, linked to overall discrimination in the platform economy model and without a gender focus. At the beginning of 2016, for the first time, a more specific paper on gender and PE was published by Naomi Schoenbaum. This contribution pointed out the relevance that gender identity has in PE. She argued that in this model, gender identity takes more relevance due to the increased personal and intimate nature of economic transactions. In addition, the issue of trust becomes central to explain how gender discrimination operates in the platform economy (Roy, 2016). PE algorithms also reproduce gender stereotypes (Kenny & Donnelly, 2020).

Gender segregation between fields of economic activity, roles and platforms are sharpened as Juliet Schor’s extensive studies show (Schor et al., 2016). Gender discrimination, combined with racial discrimination, leads the authors to speak of the paradox of openness in relation to the PE, between actual practice, and the sharing oriented platform economy’s widely articulated goals of openness and equity.

Gender inequality is also exacerbated not only in the more extractionist/profit oriented models, but also between the most open models and those associated with the social economy.

In summary, while the second decade of the XXIst century sees the rise of the fourth wave of the feminist movement, initial studies on gender dynamics in the emerging economic model of production do not indicate that technology might contribute to reducing gender inequality. To the contrary, it may reinforce it. This also raises a more general question of handling diversity from an intersectional perspective (considering gender with its connection to other axes of discrimination, such as race, class, and origin).

PUBLIC POLICIES TO ENSURE AN EGALITARIAN PLATFORM ECONOMY

The situation created by COVID-19 has increased the importance and role of policy interventions in the economy. On its part, PE has become a top priority for governments around the globe (Codagnone & Martens, 2016), affecting many policy areas and involving a major plurality of approaches (Hong & Lee, 2018). Cities, in particular, are the spaces where the PE development and disruptive effects concentrate, and city governments have to confront the greatest challenges and opportunities. In particular, it is of great interest how policy-making could favour an equitable and sustainable shift of the PE as a way out of the economic crisis derived from COVID-19. However, the PE occurs in a regulatory vacuum, with unsystematic policy reactions and uncertainty towards which policies may be more beneficial. This is a trend that, together with its novelty, raises several questions about not only what substantive policies to adopt, but also how policy-making could adapt, take advantage of and responding to the PE, its effects and potential (Pais & Provasi, 2015). In this sense, the innovative character of the PE (connected to co-creation practices and digital tools) makes it a particularly suitable sector for the deployment of collaborative policy-making and public innovation (Rodriguez & Fuster Morell, 2018), opening up possibilities for policy innovation (Davidson & Infranca, 2016). This said, it still seems necessary to deepen the interrelation between this type of market disruption and new ways of experimenting in policy-making (Mazzucato, 2016).

SCOPE AND FOCUS OF THE PAPERS – KEY ISSUES

This special issue is dedicated to the study of policy reactions to the PE, in particular to ensuring gender equality. Topics of papers can address, but are not limited to the following questions:

  • Does the expansion of the PE favour gender equality?

  • How does the PE handle diversity (such as gender, race, social, and origin)?

  • How does the PE perform in terms of gender inclusion?

  • What would characterise a feminist platform?

  • How does gender intersect with other axes of discrimination in the PE?

  • How does a platform try to mitigate or take advantage of gender inequalities in the PE?

  • Which role does gender identity play in the PE?

  • How to empower women in the PE?

  • How does the PE impact the care work distribution and reproductive work (in contrast with productive work) activities?

  • How do business models of the PE interface with gender?

  • How do algorithms perform in terms of gender?

  • How do governance models of platforms intervene in terms of gender?

  • How do different models of the PE, more socially oriented vs. more extractionist oriented, perform in terms of gender inclusion and diversity?

  • What would a gender equality plan for a digital platform be?

  • How do technological developments such as blockchain relate to gender?

  • How far does the post-COVID-19 context create the conditions for economic model transformation?

  • What have been the policy and regulatory reactions to the PE?

  • How did cities confront the challenges and opportunities of the PE?

  • How do policy actors address the gender dynamics in PE?

  • How to incorporate a gender perspective into a regulatory and/or promotion policy?

We invite research and policy papers from a broad range of disciplines and perspectives including sociology, economics, political science, law, digital humanities, socioeconomics, communication studies, critical studies, data science, and computer science.