I am a frequent user of the Uber app, preferring it over regular taxis. On most of my trips, the driver has always been male and it’s only on two occasions that I have had a woman as my Uber. The first time, I did not get to interact much with my driver as it was a fairly short distance to my destination leaving little room for conversation.
The second time gave me some insight on what it being a woman Uber was like. As we sat in traffic, Jeannine (not her real name) was cordial and after exchanging pleasantries and small talk about mundane things such as the unbearable January heat, I broached the subject on how work was for her especially as a woman.
Jeannine smiled,’ Business is good, some days are better than others but I have never gone home empty handed.’
She tells me she was introduced to the business by another lady who also happened to be an Uber driver and she has not regretted making the decision to be a driver.
‘Are there any challenges?’ I ask her as our vehicle snakes through traffic.
Jeannine responds by telling me that the challenges are common across the board such as theft when driving at night but there are some she faces that are unique to her because of her gender.
The challenges multiply tenfold especially at night and on top of looking out for carjackers and thieves she also has to watch out for what she calls passengers with ‘itchy fingers’. She describes them as men who conveniently let their hands wander and grope her thighs or touch her hands when she is driving.
‘Some male passengers even outrightly ask for sex,’ she says.
‘The drunk ones are the most problematic. They abuse you when you turn them down and refuse to listen to reason, ‘she pauses then adds as an afterthought, ‘but no one ever heard of a reasonable drunk man.’
Other male passengers have saved her number and used it to badger her with sexual advances, threatening to give her a low rating if she declines. She simply blocks these people and moves on.
We both laugh. I ask her if she ever reports these passengers and she tells me she has never thought about it and feels that it might not lead to any prosecution of the passengers. She has instead devised her own ways of ensuring her safety.
When driving at night, she locks all her doors and windows and before picking up a passenger she will assess their current state and if they’re too drunk, she cancels the ride from her end of the app and requests that they choose another driver. If the passenger ends up passed out drunk in her car, she drops them at the nearest police station and reports the matter to Uber who refund her for the charges incurred. This is unlike most male drivers who are not selective of whom they carry with one driver telling me that he often carried too drunk passengers into their homes. For him, drunk male passengers are relatively harmless, ‘What can a drunk man do?’ he asks in defiance.
Jeannine has also had patronising passengers who cannot believe that she is a qualified driver and ask to see her driver’s licence and inspect it as if it were a thing of novelty.
Jeannine tells me that they are few women drivers and most of them are deterred by the challenges of a sexist society. She tells me that some her friends would have liked to take part in the venture bit their boyfriends and spouses do not allow them to do so.
The situation is the same worldwide with statistics showing a glaring disparity in the ratio of male to female drivers. Countries like the United States cite only 14 percent of Uber drivers as women. The figure may be paltrier in Kenya.
In light of this, Uber launched a partnership with UN women to have a million women Uber drivers by 2020.This move partnership was retracted a week later in 2015 when UN women backed out and issued a statement citing the failure of the company to provide basic working conditions such as health insurance and a minimum wage to its employees which contribute to the economic disempowerment of women who already face unequal opportunities in the workforce.
Uber’s efforts to increase female drivers on board into the app may just be acts for show, glossed for media and PR. On the surface, it may seem that they are trying, uploading videos to back up statements on their commitment but in truth they are just paying us lip service.
The insincerity in their efforts in making Uber a safe space for women becomes evident when incidents of women being harassed or women drivers sexually assaulted by male passengers going unpunished or efforts in providing reprieve to the victims being lacklustre.
This is further compounded by Uber founder Travis Kalanick’s overtly sexist remarks and ad campaigns that objectify women.
Despite the challenges Jeanine faces, she is not going to stop driving saying that most passengers are relatively harmless and she is appreciative of the good days.
Besides, she adds with a chuckle, ‘I am making a killing and cannot imagine going back to formal employment.’
Featured image via Forbes.