05 September 2017

Perceptions Biais in Modern Workplace

There are gaps between women and men in the working sphere within the EU as shown by employment rate, earnings, pensions, but also the lack of women at decision-making positions. One of the main source of this employment gap is caused by the impact of parenthood, forcing women to more part-time employment and temporary contracts, due to caring responsibilities. This is creating an occupational and sectorial segregation.

About the topic

A world without unions ?

The talk touched on the importance of trade unions in the modern working environment. On the one hand, it was stated that the digitalisation was creating job opportunities with, for example,  platform-based service, digital products, bloggers, software developers but also data analysts. On the other hand, other types of work, mostly middle-skilled routine jobs traditionally held by humans were also slowly becoming automated or off-shored. For Mrs. Hellferich, the unions that brought salary raises, pensions and regulations were developed by discussions and teamwork at the workplace. The automation and dematerialisation of this sphere could lead to their disappearance or at least weaken their base.


Flexible, precarious, gender-blind ?

The self-employment, temporary contracts, or part-time work isn’t a new phenomenon, but already accounts for about one in three jobs across OECD (2015). Thus, as stated, the rise of a digital, platform economy, while fast, only affects a small share of workers (estimated 0.5% of US workers). Most workers participate in the platform economy to supplement incomes from other paid work and to balance family responsibilities – which are still taken on predominantly by women.


New Opportunities for Women ?

For Hellferich, women and men have just as much to gain and fear from new digital technologies. Women may benefit from increased flexibility in work, as in industries where work can be split into self-contained tasks and allocated to multiple workers. But the unscrupulous use of new atypical work arrangements may also reduce job quality, for example, through lack of separation between personal and professional life or longer working hours.

Some critics could also be brought to the discussion. First, the job effects of digitalisation will depend crucially on skills, and the technical and digital schools are still predominantly educating men. The fear of a low union coverage also raised concern about the workers participation and vitality within the gig economy.

Various researches concerning gender biases on platforms such as UberfiverrTaskrabbit or Hassle in the gig economy, showed that biases affect freelancing websites, where the ethnic or feminine names brought lower or less ratings when not cancelling. The algorithms then integrates these discrimination in his calculus, creating data based biases on the platforms. The real world biases are therefore slowly adapted to the digital economy.

Thus, seeing the slow reproduction of inequalities in the modern economy, these questions should be integrated to any company: Is there a gender strategy within the company ? Is there a monitoring or an analysis of the gender related issues to avoid biases, for example at the selection process ? Is there a sex based harassment policy, do the consultants and freelance workers take it in account ? Do the managers know how to manage flexible teams, do they publish a transparent pay scale ?

Some policy recommendations were also presented at the occasion, mainly using the education for women in the STEM and new technologies to promote gender equality in the future economy. Hellferich also stressed the need to remove barriers to life-long learning and to ensure that more flexible ways of working do not lower job quality, therefore adapting social protection systems to the new forms of work. For her, we need to produce guidance and model workplace policies providing information and support to workers affected by the new economy.


Conclusion: Success factors

The policies presented during the speech should support the presence of women in senior and negotiating roles and ensure a gender perspective in collective bargaining on violence, for example in male dominated sectors. In the eyes of the private sector, it is also important to make a strong business case of the economic impact of gender-based discrimination. Hellferich concluded with the importance of enabling legal frameworks with clear duties on employers and governments for collective bargaining; requirements at the  workplace or to address and prevent violence at work.


During the question rounds, the auditors had precise assessments to add to the conversation; asking for a modern and re-defined vision of work, integrating the informal or unpaid labour. They also stressed the general inequality between maternity and paternity leave, forcing for a financial compensation so that the father stays home, in order to avoid loss within the couple incomes.

About the speaker

Barbara Hellferich is Director of the European Anti-Poverty Network, founder of the Think Tank G5+, Rapporteur on Work Life Balance at the European Economic and Social Committee, and Gender advisor of the European Trade Union Confederation.