“A lot of us really like the job, like the flexibility, and like the customers. [But] I don’t know anyone who likes the company!” – Instacart shopper

Before COVID-19, the phrase “gig economy” likely elicited images of Uber and Lyft avoiding wage and hour laws and undercutting traditional taxi services in major urban areas. But the pandemic has been countercyclical for a less-discussed platform-based gig economy sector: food, and especially grocery, delivery. On March 23rd, Instacart announced that it would “hire” an additional 300,000 so-called Shoppers—the company’s term for the independent contractors it engages—to meet the demand for food delivery that arose as people with enough means to pay a little extra for chicken chose to outsource their grocery shopping.  A month later, in April, they announced plans to hire yet another 200,000 Shoppers.

In 2019, Ruth Milkman, Kathleen Griesbach, Adam Reich and I surveyed 955 food delivery workers, and interviewed a subset of 55 for approximately one hour each. We reported findings from this study in a Socius article last year, arguing that there is significant variation in forms of algorithmic management in the grocery delivery sector, and that Instacart exerts a form of control we labeled algorithmic despotism—actively managing worker tasks and time to a much greater extent than other such services. In late August, we published an article in Critical Sociology, which draws on the same data, but this time with a more intent focus on certain qualitative findings, specifically with respect to gender and class consciousness. We argue, in short, that what Marxist-feminist Temma Kaplan labeled female—as opposed to feminist—consciousness is fully compatible with a stance of working-class antagonism to company bosses and class-privileged customers. Below I elaborate these findings, and then discuss implications for political practice beyond the academy.

Female Consciousness and Class Resentment in the Gig Economy

Our survey found that women are substantially overrepresented in food delivery work; 74% of respondents were female.[1] Thirty-nine of our 50 interviewees were women, and here we found compelling data that begins to explain the selection of working-class women into food delivery work. In our interview data we found substantial evidence of “female consciousness,” that is the women we interviewed appeared largely to accept a range of normative gender roles. Other than an instance with a single interviewee who reported being “hit on” by a customer, we did not identify latent or explicit criticism of patriarchy.

We found three patterned ways in which interviewees made sense of their food delivery work through the lens of female consciousness: the flexibility it provided in order for them to do care work at home, the gendered shopping skills that they brought to the job, and the opportunities to provide care as part of the job itself.

One interviewee announced, “I take care of everyone in my life!” While male and female interviewees alike reported appreciating the flexibility associated with gig work, female interviewees specifically appreciated this flexibility for a reason: it enabled them to balance unpaid care work in the home with the need to generate income outside of the home. For example, one woman told us, “If my son wakes up at two o’clock in the morning and has a fever, I don’t have to worry that my boss is going to freak out because now I have to stay home. So it just makes this a lot easier, being able to call the shots and work when I need to work.” Again, while men reported similar appreciation for the flexibility of gig work, they did so for less gendered reasons.

Many female interviewees reported enjoying food delivery work because it enabled them to apply gendered skills that they developed doing unpaid work for their families. We thought of this dynamic as a neoliberal version of wages for housework. In one particularly compelling interview, the female respondent criticized male co-workers who appear to lack the skills that she had developed shopping for her home:

I came across a shopper the other day who is new to my zone. And I was watching him pick avocadoes. He wasn’t picking avocados. He just walked up to it, picked it up, and threw it in his card. And 90 percent of those avocadoes that were in the section that he picked were soft and not good.

The interviewee proceeded to engage in a conversation with the male co-worker, explaining to him how to select good avocadoes. Another interviewee told us, “I’m a person who cooks, so I like being in grocery stores…I like people able to help people in an intelligent way. Being able to educate people – not like it’s my job, but I did explain to one woman [how to make tomato sauce].”

Additionally—and this was in some ways the most compelling qualitative finding—many female interviews reported enjoying food delivery itself as care work. Interviewees often mentioned delivering to old people as especially rewarding. One woman described her very first delivery, to a woman in a cast, and feeling immediately as though her new gig job had meaning. Others used the terms “social work” and “community service” to describe aspects of their food delivery work.

Yet some of the very same interviewees who viewed their gig work through a relatively non-critical, female consciousness lens, displayed strong class resentment. “It’s one thing to deliver to an older person that is homebound, just cannot leave their house, can barely move. That’s your good deed for the day! It’s another thing to deliver to a very affluent neighborhood where the houses cost a million and up – and they don’t tip!” Interviewees consistently expressed outrage toward their class-privileged customers.

But, as the short quote that opens this post suggests, respondents’ rage was not limited to resentment of customers—it extended to the company for which they worked. “I hate this company. They’re the enemy! It’s us against them, and it’s a war.” One interviewee used the term “anti-Christ” to describe the app she worked for, and another used the term “slavery” to describe the worker experience on the Instacart app.

Our interviews made clear that awareness of exploitation or oppression in one arena does not necessarily lead to such awareness in another such arena. Many female interviewees displayed rageful awareness of class-based relationships, at the same time that they displayed an acceptance of gender-based dynamics. In short, we found that female consciousness is quite compatible with class consciousness, confirming Temma Kaplan’s findings from nearly four decades ago.

Possible Implications for Political Practice

There is a strand of the Marxist tradition that reads identitiarian and other political superstructures relatively directly off of the material base. In such traditions we should expect a somewhat mechanical relationship between an experience of oppression or exploitation and the consciousness that emerges from that experience. In the most reductionist form, superstructural or social elements are reducible not just to a material base but to an economic one. This has led even complex thinkers like Louis Althusser to such contortions as determination of the superstructure by the base, but only “in the last instance.”

Instead, the findings we present in Critical Sociology point to the need for a political practice that actively engages in political articulation. There are rarely if ever mechanical relationships between the material and the identitarian, nor, as important, between one form of oppression and another, between exploitation and oppression.

It is quite possible for a class-conscious actor, male or female, to possess normative views on gender, as it is possible for feminist actors to lack an analysis of capitalism. Karl Marx understood that the working class would need radical identities and organizations to act as the vehicles that would transform capitalism into socialism. People—real, living, breathing people—construct these identities and organizations, from the raw material they are handed by generations past.

To truly build a just and egalitarian society, the political vehicles we construct must not leave anything to fate: it is up to us to articulate a socialist program that is anti-racist, feminist, and that broadly opposes the forms of oppression that plague the society and planet.

[1] Representative samples of low wage workers are notoriously difficult to construct, let alone with a substantive target on a particular sector. Therefore, we used a form of Facebook-based convenience sampling (see Schneider and Harknet 2019), which is not generalizable.

Luke Elliott-Negri is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

This article is based on “Gender, Class, and the Gig Economy: The Case of Platform-Based Food Delivery,” Critical Sociology (Online First August 30, 2020).

Image: Instacart delivery on a countertop by Kristin Sloan, Wikimedia Commons