Summer Preview: Putting women in first gear

by Shelby Grebbin / Beacon Staff • August 4, 2016

Summer Preview is a sneak peek into content the Berkeley Beacon will be unveiling in the fall. It will provide descriptions and samples of columns, opinion pieces, and news students can expect to see in the fall. 

Just past 1am on a muggy Friday night in Boston, I stand alone in a strategically well-lit area. I’m waiting for my knight in shining armour—a silver Honda Accord driven by Gary, who, according to Uber, the technology app that completes more than 2 million trips in Massachusetts each month, is a 4.6 star driver. The vehicle arrives just moments later and I step into his car. Glancing back, Gary informs me that I share the same name as his deceased German Shepherd. “She was a remarkably pretty dog,” he notes. I buckle my seatbelt and we embark on our trip home.

My $9.83 ride was a small bolt in the infrastructure of a streamlined machine. Uber now operates in over 60 countries, fueled by an increasing supply of riders and drivers who have turned in the taxi industry for a sleeker model. But how safe are women behind the wheel of progress?

An initiative of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association (TLPA), Who's Driving You?  is a public awareness campaign that outlines the potential dangers of ride-share companies. The website features a comprehensive list of Uber and Lyft related deaths, assaults, and harassment incidents.The message is clear—taxis and cabs are the only option.

However, when faced with the question of who’s driving us, we should also consider who isn’t. According to Taxi and Limousine Commission spokesman Allan Fromberg , just 1% of the cabdrivers in New York City are female. While Uber doesn’t offer statistics on the makeup of their employees, their website features a plethora of female drivers—suggesting that women are welcome. Conor Friedersdorf, a staff writer at The Atlantic, interviewed several female Uber drivers on why they chose to work for Uber. The main advantage the app creates for drivers was the avoidance of street pickups of anonymous strangers. However, when a passenger enters an Uber vehicle, the information the driver has on the passenger is minimal—a first name, a credit card, and a personal rating given by past drivers. A female Uber driver I spoke with told me that was not enough for her to feel comfortable to drive for Uber at night.

The disproportionate amount of male drivers also leads to an increased threat of sexial assault for female passengers—an unfortunate statistical reality. In April, Boston.com staff reporter Allison Pohle  outlined her experience with an Uber driver who made a sexual advance at her during a trip—an inccident she immediatley reported through the app. Since Pohle was not physically harmed, Uber could only promise that the driver would receive coaching to insure that similar incidents wouldn’t occur again.

Just a month earlier, the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a landmark piece of legislation regulating transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft. House Bill 4049 would create a Ride for Hire division under the department of public utilities in an attempt to increase public safety and level the playing field for the taxi industry. Funded by fees paid by ride-share companies, the division would require drivers to complete company and state background checks, annual vehicle safety inspections , and increase their insurance coverage to at least 1 million dollars. The bill would also forbid transportation network companies from picking up passengers from Logan Airport and at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

Naturally, the billion dollar company objected to the bill; it puts restrictions on a previously scarcely regulated industry. However, the Senate is currently working on the passage of “pro-Uber” legislation that could ultimately lead to the eradication of the taxi industry, which continues to abide by strict safety regulations.

While transportation technology companies like Uber have helped women break into a male-dominated industry, they’ve also lowered the standard of the industry itself—Uber’s “paid contractors” drive with pay-cuts and minimal benefits, poor safety regulations, and potential danger for passengers and themselves. Yes, Uber hires more women, but their track record suggests they are just seizing the opportunity to collect more dispensable employees.

When I think about massive entities that capitalize on faux-feminism for corporate gain, Uber technologies and Taylor Swift come to mind. When Uber comes under hot water for safety concerns, like Swift, it asks be excluded from a narrative that it never wanted to be a part of—because after all, Uber is a technology company. However, if transportation technology companies are destined to eclipse the cab industry, we ought to hold them to a higher social standard.