Disruptive innovation or innovative continuity?: Reconsidering “women’s empowerment” in the era of platform(isation) economies

In this blog post, Sevde Nur Ünal reflects on the ethnographic research she conducted in Turkey, delving into the contextually specific gendered dynamics of Turkish platform(isation) economy. 

Today, most tech enthusiasts and practitioners treat the rising wave of platform economies as a game-changing development that can lead us to a more participatory, inclusive, and democratic socio-economic order. ​​Looking through the gender lens, some commentators especially celebrate e-commerce platforms for their positive impact on women’s economic empowerment and their livelihoods. More specifically, in the narratives of newly ascendant platform economies, e-commerce platforms are often portrayed as a panacea which help small and micro businesses—many of which, in developing countries, are led by women—accelerate their growth. Online commerce provides these businesses with an ecosystem of services, including marketing tools, payment services, and logistics. This, in turn, can lower the barriers for women-led enterprises to enter markets and sectors which have high entry costs.

THE Platform Economy?
If we were to exist in a stark utopia envisioned by tech dreamers, technological developments today would be the only force determining our lives. However, even digitally governed platforms, just like traditional markets, are embedded in the regulatory realms, political landscapes, and normative frameworks of individual societies. That is to say, technological developments are not the only determinant—multiple actors come together to shape the (gendered) dynamics of platform economies in different ways, depending on the contextually specific socio-cultural and political configurations. This points to the variety of platform economies over and against the narratives that envisage a singular global platform economy which make women “winners” in absolute terms by virtue of groundbreaking technologies.

Gendering Turkish Platform(isation) Economy
The case of the Turkish platform(isation) economy offers a set of empirical insights that help portray platform economies as ongoing processes in which multiple actors, including women entrepreneurs, constantly consider, negate, and redesign their different (mostly contradictory) agendas—both in terms of their aims, and the instruments used to achieve them.

As one of these actors, Turkish e-commerce giants contribute to the ongoing platformisation dynamics in Turkey—a developing country where local, national, and international actors collaborate to enhance women’s participation in the labor market, sustainable economic growth, and technological development. Homegrown e-commerce platforms play a crucial role in shaping the Turkish platformisation landscape through their remarkable achievements in pursuing aggressive growth strategies, such as targeted advertising, and the marketplace business model facilitated by infrastructural developments. The integration of small businesses—particularly women-led cooperatives—as sellers in the online marketplace is invaluable for Turkish e-commerce platform companies because of the increasing consumer demand for handmade and artisanal products, as well as the desire of consumers to support local businesses, especially women entrepreneurs.

Alongside e-commerce platforms, a wide range of actors—from mayors and district governors in Turkey to non-profit organisations, NGOs, banks, and tech companies—also encourage women’s cooperatives to participate in the online marketplace. Under the scope of various projects conducted through the collaborative endeavors of these actors, many women’s cooperatives in Turkey receive special benefits, including commission fee discounts, advertising and marketing support, free photography, shipment support, as well as mentoring and e-commerce training. The aims of these projects are as follows: improving the financial and digital literacy of local entrepreneurial women; fostering the digital transformation of women’s cooperatives by enhancing their access to digital markets and supply chains; and increasing women’s participation in sustainable economic growth and local development.

The empirical data I collected from interviews with women in cooperatives show that participating in platform economy relations not only contributes to the economic empowerment of women but also enhances these women’s agency. Women’s engagement in digitalisation improves their self-confidence and self-respect as, for example, women help their co-workers in cooperatives with challenges related to e-commerce, finance, computers, and other digital devices.

However, this does not hold true for all women in the cooperatives I analysed. Some are hesitant to engage in e-commerce practices and use digital technologies due to a set of reasons, namely shortfalls in dedicated time, digital-financial literacy, and available e-commerce training. Mentorship and e-commerce training are crucial for especially local women to deal with some complicated processes (i.e., e-commerce search engine optimisation, e-commerce user recommendation algorithms, e-commerce stock inventory management).

Furthermore, despite the benefits offered by various actors, most women’s cooperatives remain small sellers with limited stock and logistical capacity to quickly respond to customer orders received via e-commerce platforms. Additionally, many cooperatives in rural Turkey still face difficulties related to the limited or unstable Internet connections. As similarly stated by a few women from different cooperatives based in rural regions, some algorithmic punishment mechanisms come into play, particularly when delays occur in the shipment process. Alongside that, the high negative customer feedback also plays a role in reducing the visibility of the relevant products of women’s cooperatives in search results.

Due to such challenges, women additionally or alternatively use more easygoing channels like Instagram to sell both individual items they produce at home and the branded products of the cooperatives. The development of Instagram “shops” indicates the transformation of a social network platform into an alternative economic space in which local women can engage in entrepreneurship which is often associated with men and masculinity.

Policy Matters
Given that many developing countries like Turkey still lack gender-sensitive policy framework of digitalisation at both national and regional levels, governments, along with development partners, should develop digital strategies to enhance the digital-financial literacy of women and their knowledge and skills regarding e-commerce. Furthermore, policymakers and other relevant actors should take initiatives to assess whether e-commerce through social media platforms (i.e., Facebook, Instagram) hinders or facilitates the national digitalisation strategies. Last but not least, a set of policy actions should be taken to increase transparency in AI-driven processes in which various products are ranked and displayed to consumers. This can help sellers registered on e-commerce platforms, such as women’s cooperatives, address challenges related to algorithmic punishment mechanisms.

Teaser photo by rupixen on Unsplash