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What the Pandemic Means for Women in the Hustle Economy

Workers in the hustle economy share a risk position: their economic activity is necessary for their financial well-being, but it does not afford them job-related protections. For women, the risks are especially acute.

  • Tressie McMillan Cottom Associate Professor of Sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University

The COVID-19 crisis is a social and economic inflection point. While our concerns about the job market are well-founded, the crisis will be just as brutal for non-wage workers in the hustle economy. It is difficult to capture this diverse population of 15–33 million non-job-workers with a single term. They are workers without jobs and entrepreneurs without any employees. They are independent contractors, freelancers, or self-employed on the side. Despite this diversity, workers in the hustle economy share a risk position: their economic activity is necessary for their financial well-being, but it does not afford them job-related protections. In this sense, they are entrepreneurial hustlers, or hustlepreneurs.

For women, the risks are especially acute. On the one hand, women workers are concentrated in jobs deemed essential (e.g., healthcare and retail). On the other hand, the hustles that many women rely on for economic survival are deemed non-essential (e.g. beauty services, personal care work). Building financial services and security for the millions of women hustlepreneurs first requires an empirical picture of their economic lives. The “Hustle Better” research project, undertaken in collaboration with the Filene Research Institute, responds to this need by interviewing women who hustle (this will be released in 2022). Drawing on interview data that walks us through their daily workflows, we are identifying the institutions, networks, and digital tools that form the infrastructure of women’s hustlepreneurship.

A COVID-related recession will be “the first services recession.” Because an “economic downturn caused by the current COVID-19 outbreak has substantial implications for gender equality, both during the downturn and the subsequent recovery” (Alon et al 2020), women’s experiences should be at the center of our analysis. The challenges for mission-oriented financial services providers will be immense. Services for women hustlepreneurs have to contend with racial differences in income, wealth, credit access, and networks. Despite these challenges, this is also a time of great opportunity for mission-oriented financial service organizations to forge strong relationships with underserved communities. Two areas of interest have emerged from research literature and field notes.

While it is true that economic necessity drives many women to enter the hustle economy, many women are also hustling because they want to. Hustling is insecure and risky, but when compared to the job market, many women think the risk is worth it. Research shows that women, immigrant, and minority entrepreneurs value autonomy. Autonomy is a significant shelter from negative experiences of bad jobs, bad bosses, and bad work conditions. Women hustlepreneurs tend to view their hustles as rational responses to labor market discrimination and deteriorating job quality. Hustling is a way to inoculate themselves from relying on a single employer or any employer at all.

Many of these hustlepreneurs want to professionalize their hustles over the long term, but the pandemic has decimated revenue for many of these women. This primes their thinking on how to add additional hustles to offset their losses. For instance, many beauty service providers are shifting to online client consultations and retail sales of custom hair extensions. This requires rapid rebranding, short-term capital to purchase wholesale goods, and learning new logistical tools. Despite these challenges, some hustlepreneurs view the economic slowdown as evidence that hustling is a smart strategy for managing economic precarity. It may be counterintuitive, but economic insecurity incentivizes more economically insecure hustling. Effective interventions may focus less on transitioning to waged work and more on alternative financing structures that set up hustles for economic viability. This creates a market for resources and platforms wherein not-for-profits should compete to reduce predatory actors.

As traditional financial institutions and flows of capital have mostly ignored this population, other alternative financial technologies and digital arrangements have emerged as the backbone of the hustling ecosystem. Providers like PayPal and Square have significant penetration with this market. And the importance of social media platforms cannot be understated. Instagram and YouTube are highly valued economic clearinghouses for women across a variety of hustles. These platforms lower the barrier of entry to marketing campaigns, for sure. They also professionalize hustles through status markers like being verified or having high follower counts. Research lags these women’s everyday engagement with digital technologies like social media and platforms like Square, PayPal, and Shopify. There is reason to be concerned that these fintech tools may extend credit or capital on predatory terms. Not-for-profit fintech tools tailored to the specific market concerns of women who hustle could reduce predation.

We will eventually reemerge from our self-isolations. Women’s economic activity will be vital to kickstarting the service economy once the post-pandemic normal is established. And we have an opportunity, in crisis, to build foundations for a new normal that works better for women than did the old normal. Targeted interventions that only focus on women in waged employment will miss a significant anchor of women’s economic lives. Women hustle for many reasons and in many capacities. Almost all of those capacities can be strengthened by expanding knowledge, services, and protections for women hustlepreneurs.

What can I do now?
Read Filene's report Meeting the Needs of Independent Workers and use the financial needs checklist to better serve independent workers and hustlepreneurs.
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