Does Uber care about women?
They sure hope you think so. This week, the ride-hailing service that seems to be growing like the universe is expanding (constantly, at ever-increasing rates) announced a partnership with the U.N. to create “1 million jobs for women globally on the Uber platform by 2020.” Currently, about 14 percent of Uber’s 160,000 drivers in the United States are female.
Uber’s general counsel, Salle Yoo, the only woman listed as part of the “leadership team” on company’s website, said in an interview Monday that because Uber doesn’t require minimum hours or a schedule “it offers the chance to be entrepreneurial, the chance to balance work and family.” Female passengers won’t have the ability to request female drivers yet, and most of the details of how this pledge will be acted upon are still TBD. (Neither Uber nor the U.N. responded to repeated requests for comment.)
Anyone who has been paying attention to Uber over the past two years will likely greet this news with skepticism. Uber does not have a particularly good track record when it comes to women and concerns about safety. People often refer to Uber as having “a woman problem,” but that term implies the problem with Uber is women. Uber does not have a woman problem. Uber has a man problem.
Specifically: male drivers who have kidnapped, abducted (or, according to Uber, “taken on an inefficient route“), choked, and raped female passengers; male riders who use Uber’s “lost-and-found” feature to harass female drivers; the male Uber executive who said the company should hire opposition researchers to dig up dirt about journalists and that Uber could expose private, personal information about a female journalist who had written critically about Uber; the male CEO who told GQ that he referred to his rising sexual stock due to the company’s success as “Boob-er” and who denied Uber had any responsibility for assaults in its vehicles because “these incidents aren’t even real in the first place“; and then there’s this, and this, and this, and this.
At the risk of stating the obvious, a woman isn’t hailing a late-night Uber in order to feel less safe than she would feel waiting for a cab, hopping on the subway or bus, or walking home alone.
If Uber genuinely wants women to feel safe riding in its cars, is this pledge — essentially an employment goal they hope to reach five years from now — the best way to address the very real and immediate fears women have? Is the solution to the “male drivers assault and intimidate female passengers” problem to simply segregate by gender? It’s as if the Uber powers-that-be are throwing up their hands at the idea that they could employ only male drivers who don’t rape female passengers. And what about addressing safety concerns outside of the car, like the privacy of passenger data? Anyone with access to someone’s Uber history could easily attain that passenger’s home address, where they usually go at night, when they tend to be home and when they’re out and about.
Considering everything the Uber announcement fails to address, “It’s probably some calculated PR move on their part to try and figure out how they can make people feel safer without actually acknowledging that many women haven’t been safe while riding Uber,” said Emily May, executive director of Hollaback!, a non-profit dedicated to ending street harassment and ensuring gender equality in public spaces. “And whether you say the word ‘safety’ or not, that’s what’s on every woman’s mind when she’s deciding whether or not to take Uber or any other car service. Once you start seeing that it isn’t safe and this company isn’t acknowledging these things head on, they’re skirting around it with hashtag campaigns, or saying they’ll do something by 2020, which is a long way off, it’s not getting to the root of it, which is: why did this happen in the first place?”
“The timing of this is also dissatisfying,” May said. “When we see all this stuff coming after such high-profile assaults, it’s almost like a token gesture. It doesn’t feel real.”
If Uber wants to demonstrate that it’s a company that values women and takes concerns about the safety of female passengers seriously, “It’s not just hiring drivers,” said May. “It’s hiring senior management that are women. And it’s not just about women, either. It’s not like you get a magic percentage of women and all of a sudden the company is safe.”
CREDIT: Tsering Topgyal/AP
Soraya Chemaly, a feminist writer and activist, has reported on other cab companies’ efforts to launch female-only taxi services. “I think probably Uber did not go into this business thinking at all about gender and gender-based violence,” she said. “However, they have come to understand that it’s very important.”
“On a positive side, I think that it’s a really great thing,” she said of the pledge. “It will provide jobs, and it will help women break into a traditionally male-dominated field in ways that didn’t exist before. That’s a net good.”
But Chemaly is not sold on the idea of using female drivers as the fix for violence perpetuated by men. “I think that we have a real societal problem with distinguishing between avoidance and prevention. We have made avoidance really profitable. There are a million and one ways for women to stay safe, and a million of them require a cost,” financially or socially. “But those don’t prevent assault.”
“Yes, will I take a car that has a female driver late at night because I can? I may very well do that, because it’s safer,” she said. “But that doesn’t actually stop rape. Nothing about that prevents rape.” Not to mention the fact that nothing about this initiative deals with protecting riders’ data. “I think that what we’re not talking about is this very pervasive culture of surveillance of women.”
“I think bringing on female drivers is part of the solution,” said May. “I know I personally feel safer with a female driver… But I would caution [Uber] to think about, what can they actually do to make sure the female drivers themselves are safe? There’s nothing preventing them from being harassed or assaulted as a driver. I’m sure that’s a fear that a lot of women have and why they tend to stay out of that field as a whole. There’s no easy, simple answer. I think it really takes a comprehensive set of strategies. Female drivers could be part of that strategy, but you have to be able to support them.”
Besides, May pointed out, “You shouldn’t have to have a female driver. This is about a culture where harassment and assault is so so prevalent that companies assume that ‘of course someone will be harassed and assaulted in our car. It’s an inevitability.’ And I think that’s a mistake. There’s no reason that we can’t have a car service where no assault and no harassment happens. It’s just that these companies aren’t working hard enough.”
Some changes Uber could implement to improve rider safety seem small but could have a relatively big impact, said May, like “making sure Uber drivers, if requested, will wait until you get in your front door [before driving away]. That can make a difference. And it’s about making sure there are policies in place for riders to be able to report harassment and assault. What can they expect, if something does happen, that Uber will do to help them out?” In the past, this has been one of Uber’s most widely criticized weaknesses: that in response to passenger horror stories, Uber denies or apologies for “inconvenience” without acknowledging the gravity of what occurred. There is still no phone number listed on the Uber website for riders to call to report an emergency.
“In my dream of dreams,” May said. “I would love to see Uber also really train their drivers in bystander intervention,” a practice for witnesses to assault (or any other negative behavior) to be empowered to get involved in a safe, effective way. An Uber driver shouldn’t just be thinking about “their terrain in the car,” said May. “It’s making sure the rider gets from point A to point B safely.”
“Something is better than nothing,” said May. But “what I’d say to Uber, if I were to sit down with them, is: something is not enough. This is just not enough.”
Uber is the market leader by a wide margin; its closest competitor, Lyft, has “tens of thousands” of drivers in the U.S., Chelsea Wilson, Lyft’s public policy communications manager, said by phone. But Lyft is a useful comparison for purposes of gender equality: though Uber, as the industry leader, makes headlines for its female-hiring pledge, Lyft already has a fleet in which 30 percent of the drivers are female, as are 60 percent of the passengers and, most notably, 14 of Lyft’s 30 top executives are female, including the head of the trust and safety team. “I think having female leadership at the table helps to inform decisions not just at the corporate level but at the passenger and driver level as well,” Wilson said.
Wilson described Lyft’s ambition of “filling every seat in every empty car,” a feat that is only possible if women feel safe using the service. To that end, Lyft has a critical response team that can actually be reached by phone, not just email. “Our ultimate goal is that ridesharing is a very normal thing, that people who have cars don’t think twice about flipping on the app, going into driver mode, and picking people up along the way,” she said. “To do that, to make this a ubiquitous thing, everyone has to be comfortable.” Lyft has also partnered with the White House “It’s On Us” campaign to prevent sexual assault.
Uber is the industry behemoth, though: the company is valued at $40 billion. Uber operates in 250 cities in 54 countries. Lyft is reportedly trying to raise $250 million in new financing, which would put its value at a relatively measly $2 billion, and only operates in the U.S.
Still, May doesn’t think Uber is untouchable. “I definitely don’t think they’re too big to fail,” she said. “I think they’re on really shaky ground here.”