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Can This Women-Only Taxi Service Overcome Legal Hurdles?

The entrepreneurs behind SheRides want to connect female riders with female drivers. But is their business model too flawed?

Can This Women-Only Taxi Service Overcome Legal Hurdles?
[Screen shots: courtesy of SheRides]

As a woman, there are some situations where the presence of other women (and the absence of men) can put you more at ease. And thankfully there are many situations where women have that choice. If you want a woman doctor, you can certainly find one. If you want to join a gym exclusively for women, you can probably find that, too. And if you’d feel more comfortable catching a ride from a woman cab driver, there’s now an app that’s trying to make that possible.

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The livery cab service SheTaxis–or SheRides in New York City due to regulations against using “taxi” in names–aims to ease concerns women may have about riding in a car alone with a man she doesn’t know by connecting female drivers with female riders. In New York, only 1% of the nearly 50,000 yellow cabs and 5% of the city’s nearly 60,000 drivers of livery cars and green cabs have women behind the wheel, according to the New York Times in an article last month.

Recent reports of alleged sexual harassment and assaults made by male cab drivers, like the lawsuit filed earlier this year by a woman who claimed an Uber driver “repeatedly fondled” her “legs, groin area, and breasts,” makes it clear why a service like SheTaxis appeals to women.

The “women for women” service sounds like a good idea, but some are questioning whether its business model is legal. Federal, state, and city discrimination laws forbid businesses to refuse to hire someone or serve a customer based on their gender.

New York University law professor Samuel Estreicher told the Wall Street Journal Law Blog that he thinks the business “has problems” since “the law doesn’t recognize the customer preference as a justification for discrimination.” However, Tamika D. Mallory, the company’s spokeswoman, told Fast Company that SheTaxis/SheRides won’t be discriminating against male hires because the company won’t be hiring any drivers at all.

The company recruits drivers already licensed with livery services and will dispatch those who come on board when a customer requests a ride through its app. When it comes to men requesting rides, Mallory said the app would redirect those customers to other cab services.

“We have attorneys who are involved and we’re moving forward with our launch,” she said.

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SheTaxis/SheRides was started by Stella Mateo, who has worked alongside her husband, Fernando, in the livery service since he founded the New York State Federation of Taxi Drivers in 1999. The organization includes 30,000 for-hire drivers today. For years, Mateo’s husband told her about violent incidents that occurred to women passengers and when Mateo asked him why there weren’t more female drivers, he didn’t have an answer, said Mallory.

Those weren’t the only times Mateo thought there should be more women for-hire drivers. When her two daughters stayed out late as young adults, Mateo preferred women to drive them home. “Then she found out there were women who couldn’t even drive,” Mallory continued, because of their religious or cultural backgrounds and sometimes their beliefs restricted them from traveling with unrelated men of their households. Mateo also wanted to provide women with more economic opportunity.

The women-only cab service was meant to open doors for both female drivers and passengers, but aside from legal concerns, the company has also run into a staffing problem. The app delayed its initial September 16 launch date due to a shortage of women drivers. As of September 15, the company had 100 drivers signed up and “that number has been steadily growing,” said Mallory, but the app won’t be available until at least 500 drivers are recruited. As of now, there is no official launch date.

“[Mateo] was concerned that she would launch and not be able to meet the demands,” Mallory explained. “Sixty percent of ridership are women. The need is there. The issue is the supply.”

The app will first launch on Apple, followed by Android, and services will be made available to customers in New York City, Westchester County, and Long Island. By next year, the company plans to expand to Washington D.C., Miami, and Chicago.

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About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.

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