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Uber's Plan to Employ More Female Drivers Won't Empower Women

Their failed partnership with UN Women was flawed to begin with

Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

I deleted the Uber app from my phone last November. It wasn’t a difficult decision, made not long after Uber executive Emil Michael reportedly suggested aloud that the company would be justified in digging into a journalist’s personal life after she accused the ridesharing giant of “sexism and misogyny.”

PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy, the journalist to whom Michael referred, responded soon thereafter. “My concern wasn’t more lies winding up online about me,” she wrote. “Sadly, I’ve had to get used to it. … No, these new attacks threatened to hit at my only vulnerability. The only part of my life that I’d do anything to protect: My family and my children.”

Given that I’ve been boycotting Uber ever since, I’m glad that the United Nations has thought better of partnering with them. We learned this past weekend that, after a loud outcry from women’s rights and labor right groups, UN Women was pulling out of its new, highly-publicized association with Uber to create a million new driving jobs for women by 2020. The partnership, announced March 12, barely lasted a week.

Announcing the about-face, UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said, “I want to assure you that not only are we listening, we are aligned.” Unsurprisingly, an Uber spokesperson put it differently, telling BuzzFeed that despite the end of the short-lived partnership, Uber’s goals are still aligned with those of UN Women and that they share the vision “of accelerating economic opportunity for women globally.”

Uber’s claim is difficult to believe. The company has a publicly terrible track record in its dealings with women generally—passengers, drivers, journalists—and has a grand total of six women among its 50 top employees. To lend the legitimacy of UN Women to a company that is clearly scrambling to correct an accurate public perception that it is at best unconcerned about the well-being of women would have been a mistake.

Last December in Boston alone, four women reported being indecently assaulted by their ride-share drivers, at least two of whom were Uber drivers. So I’d had concerns, before reading Lacy’s article, about how Uber had handled the case of a woman passenger who was abducted by her driver—the company shrugged off the terrifying incident, with its very real risk of sexual violence and death, as “an inefficient route.” Once I read about Michael boasting to a journalist of his plans to mine a woman journalist’s personal life to intimidate, humiliate, and silence her, I decided that as a woman, and as a woman journalist, that I was done being their customer. I also encouraged my friends of all genders and professions to consider being done, too.

I’m a young white woman, and though I can’t afford to take yellow cabs on a regular basis, taxi drivers are far more likely to pick me up when I do want one. I recognize that boycotting Uber is a privilege. But if the company wants to collect on the Corporate Social Responsibility brownie points it was clearly angling for with this scuttled partnership, it’s going to have to do better than this.

The creation of a separate system of women drivers designed to make women passengers feel safer will carry unintended side effects. As a woman who frequently travels alone, I am grateful for the option of car services that only hire women drivers. I used one in India when I traveled there alone several years ago. And having been groped in the New York City subway, nearly groped on the Paris Métro, and having heard countless stories of harassment, flashing, groping, and, of course, rape, on public transport, I can certainly see the appeal of creating a way for women passengers to get around without having to worry so much about those risks. Egypt, Taiwan, and Brazil—among other countries—offer women-only public transport services. In the United States, only 2 percent of taxi drivers are women, and only 170 of New York’s 46,000 taxi drivers—or 1.1 percent—are women.

Being a realist and a feminist are not mutually exclusive. Like many women, I am deeply saddened that these options are necessary while also being deeply grateful that they exist. And yet, it’s easy to see how the creation of these women-only spaces lets society at large off the hook. Rather than holding male Uber drivers accountable and creating a work culture—a culture, period—in which sexual harassment and assault are unacceptable, we instead create a parallel system for women drivers and passengers, accepting the inevitability and intractability of widespread sexual violence committed by men. For a company that claims to be visionary and paradigm-shifting, this is a surprisingly short-sighted and paradigm-enforcing approach to “empowering” women.

Uber’s move doesn’t only promote complacency about the urgency of sexual violence, and of gender inequality more generally. It risks making it even more difficult to hold the company accountable if its women passengers are assaulted by male drivers. As prone as our culture is to victim-blaming, it is easy to imagine Uber asking, “Why didn’t you request a woman driver?” if a woman passenger is assaulted by a male driver. Would that be shocking, coming from a company with a still-employed executive who considered digging up dirt on a female journalist who merely expressed a critical opinion?

Getting into a car with a stranger is always a risk, regardless of your gender or that of the driver. The power dynamics of a woman getting into a car with a strange man, even a man who has passed an Uber-required background check, are particularly imbalanced. That’s especially the case in a city that the driver knows well and the passenger does not. Any car service or ridesharing company courting women customers needs to understand the very real risk that women shoulder when they get in a car with a stranger. Uber, by continuing to pursue this initiative even without UN Women, demonstrably does not. If Uber cannot take violence against its American women customers seriously now, why should we assume that it would in the future, particularly as it expands into the developing world? And why should we trust that it would keep its women drivers safe, either? “If it becomes a selling point for Uber that it has female drivers, driving strangers around in their personal vehicles for a fee,” Sarah Jaffe argued in Dame last week, “it is easy to imagine what kind of male customers that might attract and what boundaries might disappear, encouraged by cuddly ‘sharing economy’ branding.”

As for all those jobs for women drivers promised in the now-dead partnership, Uber’s spokesperson added that the company remains committed to its “ambitious goal” of creating all of them. A million new jobs for women in the next five years sounds great, provided they are good jobs: fairly paid jobs, in which workers have the right and the opportunity to organize, and provided by a company that treats its workers as people rather than as disposable placeholders until self-driving cars come to market.

Uber driving jobs do not fit that bill. One million jobs is not the same thing as one million good jobs, and women have every right to demand the latter.

Jaffe, in her Dame report, noted that Uber drivers are independent contractors, “rather than being employees who are eligible for benefits like health care, family leave, and paid vacation. … They are also responsible for providing and maintaining their own cars.” She added that “there is little protection or support for drivers.”

As Michelle Chen noted in The Nation, taxi drivers work under miserable conditions: 51.1 percent of them report being verbally abused on the job in the last year, and 17.3 percent report being physically assaulted. Jaffe notes that “since many drivers are immigrants, racism plays an ugly role in the violence many drivers face.” Add gender to that intersection, and the stats would almost certainly get even grimmer. And as Jaffe observed, driving for Uber requires a certain amount of emotional labor. “While taxi-driving and Uber driving are currently dominated by men,” she writes, “Uber in particular gives its customers a lot of power by allowing them to rate their drivers—a poor rating might lead to the driver getting fired. Drivers have to put on a smile and pretend they’re having a great time even if their passenger is a jerk.”

While Uber is marketing its hiring of women as “empowerment” for women, it would hardly be surprising, given the company’s track record, if it began marketing the proliferation of women drivers differently down the line. “Again, the potential for victim-blaming is obvious: you were attacked by a male passenger? Why did you pick up a male passenger? Don’t you know you have the option to only pick up women passengers?

The bottom line here is Uber’s bottom line: The company was valued at $40 billion in December. It got there without a conscious effort to employ women drivers, and despite its demonstrable disregard for the safety of women who use the service. Uber doesn’t need women, either behind the wheel or in the backseat, to keep its profit margins wide. It needs them to fix its tarnished reputation. With this failed partnership with UN Women, Uber sought the empty appearance of sensitivity to give cover for a business model that disempowers all its drivers, regardless of their gender.

If it wants to win back the women and women’s rights institutions who have boycotted it, Uber is going to have to substantively demonstrate its commitment to gender equality in the long term, and not just in a way that serves its bottom line and its efforts to rehabilitate its reputation. That means good, safe jobs for drivers and accountability to all passengers. It means actions that don’t use the urgency of ending gender inequality as a public relations ploy. If Uber continues with this flawed plan, they’ll make transport increasingly unsafe for women.