It’s been quite a year to be a woman. From the Women’s March back in January of 2017 to the #MeToo movement that dominated the news cycle as the year came to a close, this year women saw their causes championed and their voices heard to a degree we have seldom witnessed before in history. Sexual harassment, women’s advocacy, reproductive rights, and gender discrimination all made headlines. And today, on International Women’s Day, while the mood is celebratory, we also remember that there is still a long road ahead of us before women truly hold an equal place in our society, and in our world.
With women’s issues so much a part of the cultural zeitgeist, paying close attention to where inequalities and injustices persist–and where they are being amplified and even being newly created–is critical. Right now, we have a unique opportunity to take advantage of the momentum of the past year, assess our current situation, and propose solutions that will have a lasting impact as we seek to balance societal inequalities.
One such area we should focus is the emerging Gig Economy, in which a recent University of Chicago study found evidence of a surprising gender pay gap (and an area of research in which I have found myself recently engaged). The study, published last month, and featured on Freakonomics Radio, found that female Uber drivers earn 7% less per hour than their male counterparts.
Given that as of 2016 women earned about 89 cents for every dollar earned by a man, perhaps this shouldn’t have come as a surprise. But the Gig Economy was supposed to be different. The flexibility of gig economy work and the absence of the politics of a traditional workplace were expected to narrow the gender pay gap. And what’s more, with apps like Uber, the algorithm that decides how drivers are paid is designed to be completely gender blind, favoring neither men nor women. In fact, those who conducted the study expected the findings to show equal or close to equal pay (one economist even predicted that women would earn more). The results surprised them too.
The results of the study prove that a neutral algorithm can’t, on its own, solve gender inequality. There are other, larger forces at play. The study found that:
- Experience is one of the most significant factors in determining earnings. The more experience drivers have with Uber, the more they are likely to make. And given that 77% of women as compared to 65% of men quit the app after 6 months and men generally drive more hours, male drivers on average have more experience driving than female drivers.
- Where and when drivers drive also contributes to their earnings. Male drivers tend to drive in places with higher surge prices and lower wait times.
- Most significant to earnings is the speed at which drivers complete trips. Men tend to complete more trips per hour than women because they drive faster.
So if the algorithm can’t solve these issues, is there anything else that Uber can do to reduce the gender pay gap? My expert opinion is yes. The answer is in the experience. When trying to resolve issues of inequality, technology companies need to look at both their technology and the experience design that surrounds it. It’s important to remember that customer experience isn’t just about consumers, but about employees as well. A good employee experience often leads to a better consumer experience. Happier employees means happier customers. And while better experience design might not narrow the wage gap completely, it might empower women to make more informed decisions about how they can close the pay gap themselves. And hint: it’s all about using the experience to educate.
1. Use education to help drivers make up for what they lack in experience.
Drivers tend to learn through experience, and male drivers tend to have more experience. Give drivers an opportunity to learn in other ways.
Ridesharing apps like Uber should explore implementing better feedback loops that not only inform drivers of their star ratings, but use data from ratings to provide targeted feedback on how drivers can improve their trips (ie. clean up your car, make friendly conversation, offer insight into faster routes), helping drivers learn faster and maximize their earnings.
The research also indicated that female drivers are more likely to accept “bad trips” – or trips that are not profitable or may lead to lost income. Using data, Uber could easily recommend to users whether or not they should accept a trip, and/or whether they should consider cancelling a trip due to some kind of delay. It’s important, however, that in doing so, Uber doesn’t encourage drivers to discriminate against passengers. Every decision made to improve the experience for an employee should be weighed against how it will affect the customer, and vice versa.
2. Inform drivers of the best times and places to work, using their personalized driving record.
The research shows that a part of the reason male drivers earn more income than females is because they tend to work at more lucrative times and in more lucrative areas.
Uber should consider educating users, using both drivers’ personal data and the data of drivers in their area, on the best times and places to work. Today, Uber will send drivers push notifications about surge pricing as it is happening, but these do little to help drivers plan their weeks and prepare. This disproportionately affects women, who often have less flexibility than men due to family obligations. In addition to just-in time push notifications that Inform drivers about popular events, neighborhoods that are busy, and popular times of day to work, Uber should consider incorporating features into their app that help drivers better plan and prepare for buys times of week.
For example, Uber might consider creating a dashboard to provide drivers with more information about their own driving trends and trends in the areas they work in. A dashboard like this would showcase summary data to help drivers better understand how the times and areas in which they work relate to their earnings. And, using this information, Uber could offer drivers tips on how to maximize their earnings (ie. you make the most money between 6-7 on Sundays. Drive more at this time!).
3. Incorporate elements from best-in-class mapping technology like Waze and Google Maps to help drivers complete trips faster.
Speed has the most significant impact on the gender wage gap for Uber drivers. Male drivers tend to drive faster and thus also complete trips faster, which can boost their ratings and allow them to complete more trips in a shorter amount of time. While it is important not to encourage anyone to speed or drive unsafely, there are other ways to help female drivers complete trips more quickly.
Currently, Uber has its own built-in navigation system and gives drivers the option to access third party apps like Waze and Google Maps directly from their app. In 2016, Uber announced that they would be investing in their own mapping technology as a part of an effort to compete with Google on developing self-driving cars, which rely heavily on accurate mapping. But at this stage, it would benefit both drivers and consumers if Uber were instead to deepen their integration with Google by giving drivers the option to have Uber pick the route, based upon the shortest ETA from the various apps. This would also eliminate the time it takes for drivers who choose not to use the Uber GPS to switch between various apps. Additionally, Uber should consider incorporating more crowdsourcing elements from Waze (also owned by Alphabet, Google’s parent company) into their own GPS system to help drivers complete trips faster. Drivers, for example might share shortcuts, streets to avoid, and the best drop-off corners to get back on the road quickly, and in the best direction.
At the end of the day, the gender pay gap is the result of thousands of years of enculturated norms that have shaped the mindsets and behaviors of men and women alike, and cannot be easily solved. Ensuring that technology is gender neutral is one way of addressing gender equality, and in the long term this will certainly have an impact over time in how men and women see themselves in society. But until then, companies can use customer experience design to empower women with the information they need to narrow the gap for themselves.
Happy International Women’s Day!