Empowering Women to Ride?

New developments and challenges for women riders and drivers in the Ride-hailing industry.

Female taxi drivers pose for a photo in front of their vehicles at Noor Jordan for Transport — Taxi Moumayaz’s (Special Taxi) parking lot in Amman, Jordan. The Jordanian taxi company launched a new service run only for women, exclusively by women.  March 24, 2016. Muhammad Hamed/Reuters

The Ride-hailing industry is at the forefront of the new sharing economy. In emerging markets such as Egypt, India, Indonesia, and Brazil it has become successful by opening income-generating opportunities for the unemployed or partially employed and easing the burdens of constrained labor markets, especially for youth. The inclusion and participation of women in such services has been an intriguing—though until recently—under-researched industry feature.

Ride-hailing juggernauts such as Uber have marketed their services to women as customers and begun to employ more women drivers across the Global South and the wider world. And yet, a closer look at the Ride-hailing industry raises concerns about how this part of the sharing economy works and how its labor and market processes could potentially affect women’s participation—as both drivers or riders.

In early March, the International Finance Corporation and Accenture, a professional services firm, released a report titled “Driving Toward Equality: Women, Ride-Hailing, and the Sharing Economy.” This report explored questions of women’s access, patterns of use and engagement, and gender gaps in the Ride-hailing industry in Egypt, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. The report, relying on data from Uber as well as focus groups, surveys, and expert interviews, was conducted with an eye toward improving women’s participation among relevant stakeholders in the Ride-hailing industry.

In a nutshell, the report found that the Ride-hailing industry lowers barriers of entry into the workforce for women drivers, boosts their earnings even more than men, and helps support their entrepreneurial activities and builds their credit. However, women drivers are constrained by restrictive social norms, gender discrimination, and threats to their personal safety. For women riders, ride hailing increases their mobility and independence, allows them to travel at night, and to be more effective in managing their households. Yet, this also poses problems of affordability to lower-income women showing structural issues of privilege afforded to some female riders over others.   

According to the findings, several factors impede the full participation of women as both riders and drivers. These factors include concerns over security and personal safety, lack of financial means to own cars, low access to the internet and mobile phones, and finally, fears of gender segregation or exclusion. As a possible response to these factors, when able, some women rides have decided to only use other women as drivers. Although Uber does not offer this type of service, 44 percent of surveyed women riders said would be more likely to use the Uber app if they had the option of selecting a woman driver. Already in many cities across the world, including Karachi, London, Kenya, Mexico City, New York, Paris and some Australian cities, women-only taxi services are being offered.

For women who work in the car share industry, driving boosts their income. And while failing to replace a full-time job, working as a Ride-hailing driver breaks the cultural stigma many women face. In the Middle East, where women disproportionately face all of the above challenges (access, mobility, social and financial independence, safety), such services have revolutionized patterns of transportation use.

Possessing the power to ease social and gender restrictions, however, does not mean that the Ride-hailing industry is perfect. Uber, for example, has sold its brand as the safest Ride-hailing company for women. However, at times the explosive growth of the Ride-hailing industry has outpaced and trumped attention to personal safety. In the case of Egypt, rapid growth and liberalization of transport—the natural outcome of increased and unregulated competition inherently perpetuated by the sharing economy business model—has caused Uber’s safety standards to drop. As demand rose, a labor surplus resulted and compliance with safety standards became an issue. The result has been many instances where Egyptian women have felt unsafe riding on Uber. Therefore, it is imperative that economic growth does not hinder Ride-hailing companies from creating a culture that ensures the safety of women riders.  

But the logic that women will feel safer with their own sex and gender will likely have an equally negative result; that is the creation of women-only Ride-hailing services that segregate men and women in the wider society. Yet, would that be such a bad thing? Were women to populate the women-only Ride-hailing industry, women themselves would be building a safety culture from the inside-out, and act as its enforcers. Rather than wait for safety measures to be implemented on the institutional level, women operating in the grass roots can be safety bearers and fundamentally overhaul how safety and harassment are dealt with inside companies.  

Safety aside, for women drivers, societal barriers pose a bigger challenge. According to numbers provided in the report, there is a 23 percent gender gap between men and women in global earnings. The gender gap is ever wider when it comes to access to bank accounts (58 percent), owning mobile phones (14 percent), accessing the internet (6.2 percent), or being able to read (83 percent compared to 90 percent in men). Gender gaps in access affect asset ownership, and women find it harder to set up shop or sign up as drivers, and navigate the required paperwork.

Besides that, women need to consider another issue. One of the downsides of the sharing economy is that it blurs the lines between informal and formal employment. This means that women lose some crucial benefits such as formal training, health insurance, maternity pay, and pension plans which lowers their willingness to become participants in the sharing economy. In response, Ride-sharing companies must create an entrepreneurship or scholarship program for women drivers, working with policymakers and other sharing economy sectors to design a system of portable benefits that drivers could carry across multiple platforms and apps. Also Ride-hailing companies need to partner with financial institutions to develop insurance, pension, and retirement products tailored for independent contractors. These solutions can definitely help women thrive as self-employers.

Eventually, women will have to leave the fringes of the Ride-hailing sector and become its main participants. For that to happen, a lot has to change. Governments have to facilitate many new programs and partnerships; companies have to take better safety measures, establish across-the-board connections, partnerships, and women-friendly financing programs; and societies have to become more open and supportive. Unfortunately, the forces at play in the sharing economy mean that women have inherited a system that promotes competition but does not offer benefits that can sustain them, and sometimes trumps safety. These can either limit women’s success, or give them enough awareness to overcome or rise above such setbacks.

Nadeen Shaker is associate editor at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs. She has contributed to Vice News, the Middle East Report, Mada Masr, The Postcolonialist, and elsewhere. On Twitter: @NadeenShaker.

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