Misogyny and the Gig Economy
Misogyny and the Gig Economy
Disrupting the market for personal transport, ride-sharing companies such as Uber have been receiving a lot of attention. Some of this attention has not been positive - including reporting’s of rape, such as the charging of an Uber driver for raping a passenger in Virginia Beach, VA in March 2017[i], and a recent account by a former female employee detailing a culture of misogyny and sexual harassment within the Uber company itself.[ii]
Companies like Uber are reinventing the ways in which we view transportation, car ownership, and the traditional 9 to 5 job. Theoretically, all groups should be able to participate in such a broad and disruptive reinvention of the transportation sector, but are they all equally able to benefit from the explosive growth of companies such as Uber? Looking at the comparative participation of men versus women in the sharing economy, this may not be the case.
With its valuation said to be at around $70 billion, Uber is the world’s most valuable start-up.[iii] It’s clear that there are opportunities for producers and consumers to benefit from the growing sharing economy, whose pioneers also include Airbnb, TaskRabbit, and Handy. However, both female riders and drivers are being marginalized.
Perhaps unsurprisingly to those who use Uber, male drivers greatly outnumber female drivers. According to a survey conducted by Forbes in 2015, only 14 percent of Uber drivers are women.[iv] The reason behind this is rather intuitive: picking up strangers is potentially dangerous. Interviews with female Uber drivers reveal repeated instances of sexual advances and inappropriate behavior by male passengers. This behavior worsens at night, when passengers are more likely to have consumed alcohol.[v] Because of this, many female Uber drivers limit how late they drive, which effectively limits their earnings[vi].
One can’t forget the other side of the equation: female passengers. Women need to enter a stranger’s vehicle when using Uber. While Uber and Lyft both originally declared their driver background check processes to be “industry leading,” recent lawsuits in the state of California accused both companies of misleading passengers on the quality of their background checks. Both Uber and Lyft settled.[vii] We have all heard about dangerous incidents faced by female passengers using ride sharing services, such as women being sexually assaulted by their Uber drivers. “Who’s Driving You?”, a public awareness campaign promoting passenger safety in the use of for-hire vehicle services, has highlighted eight news stories reporting instances of sexual assault experienced by women while using Uber/Lyft in 2017 alone. In 2016, there are over fifty news stories, detailing experiences spanning from verbal harassment to rape.[viii] While this is thankfully not the norm, the risk remains.
Uber has taken steps to increase the safety of its passengers. One such measure includes providing passengers with the license plate number and a photo of their driver to help ensure that they step into the correct vehicle. Uber also offers Trip Tracker, which allows both the passenger and their friends and family to track the progress of their trip as well as what route they are taking. However, female passengers still typically feel more comfortable with female drivers.
There have been female-only ride-sharing services developed such as SheTaxi and Chariot for Women, but they have yet to take off, for reasons such as contention surrounding whether these female-only apps are in violation of anti-discrimination laws. Ironically, the discrimination in question is gender discrimination, where the legality of female-only ride-sharing services is contested on the basis that their services would be refused to men.[ix]
Safety concerns are not the sole provenance of ride sharing apps. Business Insider called Couchsurfing, which allows individuals to host travelers on their couches overnight for free, the greatest hook-up app ever devised.”[x] Many women wanting to use this app for its intended purpose must contend with Business Insider’s crass compliment. AirBnb has been similarly categorized. Even freelance labor apps are not immune to this problem. Using Handy, a 27-year-old woman hired a cleaner who was so aggressive towards her that she left her own home, hoping he would not be there when she returned.[xi] These instances are just a few among many.
Uber has a poor track record in its treatment of female drivers and passengers. In a March 2014 GQ profile, while boasting about Uber’s success with women, co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick called the app “Boob-er.” In October 2014, Uber ran a promotion in France that offered free 20-minute rides with Avions de Chasse (“hot chick” drivers). This ad was eventually removed.[xii] In March 2015, UN Women partnered with Uber in an effort to create one million jobs for female drivers across the globe by 2020. However, only two weeks after the partnership was announced, UN Women pulled out in response to criticism of Uber’s track record regarding the safety of female drivers and passengers.[xiii] As women, how can we be sure that we are safe and empowered as agents in the new sharing economy?
In the public policy arena, we need to seek out answers to these questions. In the United Kingdom, some have started down this path. Dr. Fiona Vera-Gray of Durham University has studied the harassment and marginalization experienced by women in public spaces. Vera-Gray’s work claims that when women are in public spaces, they are often forced to moderate their desire for freedom and safety. In other words, to feel safe, women must restrict their freedoms. This applies to situations of women walking alone at night, or deciding whether to use Airbnb when traveling alone.[xiv]
Debbie Wosskow, founder of Love Home Swap and chair of Sharing Economy UK, wants to develop a “trust mark” for the sharing economy. She partnered with Oxford University, the first academic institution to teach a course on the sharing economy, to develop a trust law in the sharing economy. The partnership looks to seek out answers to the questions assessing the position of women in the sharing economy, such as “How can we trust people to stay in our homes?”[xv]
Companies like Uber and Airbnb are disrupting how we perform simple tasks in our everyday lives, as well as industries such as the taxi, automobile, and hospitality industries. Rather than continuing to accept the fact that women must mediate their freedoms for the sake of safety, we should take advantage of this disruption, and set a precedent where women play an equal role in the transforming economy as both producers and consumers.
In the wake of disruption, good or bad, we need to take a step back and ask if this rising tide is lifting all boats. Echoing society, the sharing economy is predominantly masculine. Instead we must inform policy that creates an inclusive environment in the growing sharing economy for individuals of all genders. Policy that would make women feel safe while performing the same activities as men would truly be disruptive.
Gianna Fenaroli is a first-year MPP student at Georgetown's McCourt School of Public Policy, with policy interests in international economic policy and financial crimes. She received her BA in economics from Bard College in 2016. In addition to attending McCourt, Gianna also works at the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice as a budget analyst trainee. At Georgetown, she has also served as the first-year Treasurer in GPPSA, as well as the Director of Finance for the Women in Public Policy Initiative.