Uber recently announced a partnership with UN Women to recruit one million female drivers by 2020, a move that’s quite obviously part of a larger play to improve its public image. Uber has a women problem, and with former Obama campaign manager/PR genie David Plouffe leading the Uber campaign, it’s hard not to see this as (another) one of the ride-sharing behemoth’s slightly cynical marketing ploys.
At this point, Uber hasn’t outlined concrete plans for attracting female drivers beyond a vague line in its joint press release with the UN: “We intend to invest in long-term programs in local communities where we live and work.” But if Uber actually wanted to be a more welcoming employer to women, what would it have to do?
In one small way, Uber already has a leg up on traditional cab drivers in its play to attract women: Drivers don’t handle much, if any, cash. “Most of the perpetuators of crime, what they have been going for is robbery,” Tamika Mallory, the spokeswoman for SheRides, a female-only taxi service in New York, told Fast Company. App-based services allow drivers to carry a lot less money, diminishing the potential for theft, a draw for people looking to not get robbed on the job.
The mere existence of that fact, however, has not resulted in a surge of female Uber drivers. Uber hovers around the (low) national average for female drivers. As of December, 14 percent of its drivers, nationally, were women. That’s only a hair higher than national rates: As per the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, 12.7 percent of the 383,000 people working in the taxi driver and chauffeur business are women. (The numbers are much lower in New York City, where women make up a mere 1 percent of the cab-driving population.) Lyft, on the other hand, says 30 percent of its drivers are female; Sidecar has said 40 percent of its drivers are women.
The female aversion to driving strangers around in cars goes much deeper than the potential for robbery. “Taxi driving is considered a low-prestige, somewhat dangerous occupation. You’re dealing with the public at its worst; they’re often drunk, abusive, or try to skip out on fares,” Graham Hodges, author of Taxi!: A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver, told Fortune’s Claire Zillman. Zillman also notes that “taxi drivers are 20 times more likely to be murdered on the job than other workers.”
Getting women to overlook those risks takes trust, something Uber–with its ruthless tactics and string of assault incidents in Boston, Chicago, and Delhi–is seriously lacking. “We see a lot of drivers unhappy because they’re getting pushed around and manipulated and screwed at every turn. We see a culture that’s really insensitive toward women. Those two things would have to change with real change–not PR stuff,” said Dave Sutton, a spokesman for Who’s Driving You?, a public safety organization that represents the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association.
Yes, that is a lot to ask of a company that has aggressively refused to change the way it operates. But, in case it decides to rethink the way it approaches doing business, here are some actual things Uber could do to appeal to women in a real way.
Uber’s executive team skews very male. At Lyft, by contrast, 14 of the top 30 executives are women. Having more women leading a company would not only help Uber better understand the needs of women. It also sends the right message. “When you see other women in leadership roles or nontraditional roles, that gives you the confidence that you can do it, too,” says Lyft’s CMO Kira Wampler.
“When you look at the numbers, it tells you that there has been an issue with inclusiveness,” said Mallory of SheRides. Uber should go out of its way to make women feel safe and welcome. That process should start with an admission that its service so far hasn’t always been safe for women, says Britni de la Cretaz, a founder of the Safe Hub Collective, which has tried (and failed) to work with Uber to make riding safer in Boston. Next, Uber should go out and actively recruit women. “There has been an arrogance, a sort of level where it has not been inclusive to women in general,” explains Mallory. “I don’t believe women have been welcome into the industry with open arms.” Open those arms, Uber.
Earlier this month, a Los Angeles Uber driver wanted to report an assault. Two men had hit her in the face with a rose branch, the woman alleged. Uber has no phone number for drivers to call. She sent an email instead, which denied her request for rider information. “It’s hard to be out there working as hard as I do, and to not feel supported by them,” she told CBS News. Uber eventually suspended the rider, but it should make drivers feel supported during emergencies. Lyft, for example, has a critical response line.
A woman recently left Uber’s fleet to join Shuddle, an “Uber for kids,” because peak driving (and money-making) time happens between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., instead of Friday and Saturday nights. “She felt unsafe as a female because she was driving drunk men home from the bar,” said Shuddle’s director of community engagement and growth, Rachel Kim. One of the great things about ride sharing apps–Uber included–is that they promise flexible hours. Uber, worshiper of free-market capitalism, relies on supply and demand for its pricing, and would never operate any other way. But it might consider providing a financial safety net for those who don’t want to chauffeur drunk men.
This is an easy one. Drivers will feel safer and more welcome if they have a network. Lyft has a very simple mentorship program through which applicants get matched with a nearby mentor. Once matched, the two go on a “Welcome Ride,” which includes an inspection and a practice ride. The newb can ask any questions she might have. Uber can do Lyft one better: Offer an ongoing mentorship program. This would add an extra layer–in addition to an emergency call line–of potential protection during emergency scenarios.
People these days want to work for a company with a sense of community. Both Shuddle and Lyft have attracted drivers, men and women alike, with meetups. Uber, again, could do even better, because, as Bloomberg’s Katie Benner pointed out, “Uber refuses to make its drivers actual employees, and those drivers can always go to a competitor that offers a better deal.” Maybe it should consider providing more than a magazine–like actual benefits.
A half dozen people from various organizations we spoke with agree that, if Uber is serious about attracting women, it would have to change from the inside out. And if its previous behavior is any indication, Uber isn’t about to do that.