How Uber Helps Women Break Into the Taxi Industry

Safety has always been a huge barrier to entry for cabbies, but the ride-finding app's features seem to reduce the risk of a driver being victimized.
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The message conveyed by the image on the front page of the company's web site could hardly be more clear: female drivers welcome. (Uber.com)

How many times have you climbed into a taxicab to find a female driver at the wheel? Until recently, I'd virtually never had this happen. After scores of cab rides in New York City, Southern California, Seville, Paris, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, I hadn't been picked up by a single woman. In New York City, just one percent of taxi drivers are female, according to the Wall Street Journal. The only female cabbie I'd ever hired drove me across Portland, Oregon. The experience was so novel I still recall the ride.

The gender disparity exists despite the fact that women are, statistically speaking, safer drivers—and that some women would feel more comfortable with a female driver for some rides. Nevertheless, no matter the city, a taxi is almost always driven by a man. But now that I've shifted my patronage away from the taxi cartel and toward Uber, particularly UberX, which connects independent drivers with customers, I find myself stepping into cars driven by women all the time. Last week, for example, a mother of two transported me from my house in Venice Beach to Los Angeles International Airport. During the $15 ride she told me that she never would've considered moonlighting from her job in a surgeon's office by driving a cab, but she likes driving for Uber and has two female friends who do too.

In Los Angeles, where I take Uber most often, roughly 15 percent of my Uber trips have been inside women's cars. It's impossible for me to know if that's typical. Neither Southern California taxi companies nor Uber representatives would tell me the gender breakdown of their drivers. However, fellow patrons of the service, various Uber drivers, and traditional cab drivers I've approached on the street all agree that there are far more female Uber drivers than female taxi drivers. 

There is no single factor that explains the gender disparity between cab companies and Uber. Taxi drivers are more likely to be immigrants than Uber drivers, and many come from countries where driving a cab is a job held by males, just as is the case in the United States. Perhaps women think less often of driving professionally for that reason. Perhaps they face discrimination when cab companies hire. Uber is new; perhaps the company is unusually unbiased in its hiring relative to established industry players. It's hard to imagine the image above, the main element on Uber's web site, being used in a hiring advertisement for a traditional taxi company in a big city.

But I suspect that the biggest factor explaining the indisputable dearth of female drivers at traditional taxi companies is safety. For men, cab driver is a relatively dangerous job. For women, there is a widespread perception that it would be even more dangerous to be put in the position of picking up strangers on the street. I've asked several female Uber drivers if they'd do the job if it involved street pickups of anonymous strangers—a regulatory requirement for cabbies in many municipalities. I've yet to find a woman who would drive under those circumstances. 

My guess is that more women drive for UberX than for traditional taxis in large part because the technology behind Uber eliminates, or at least minimizes, danger as a decisive barrier to entry. As an Uber driver, there is no need to carry cash; there is no need to pick up un-vetted fares on the street or in dangerous areas. Before accepting a fare, a rating of the passenger can be seen. He or she is also tied to an identity, or at least a credit card and a smart phone. And the entire car ride is tracked by GPS.

For some women, these features seem to be the difference between feeling able to seize this economic opportunity and judging it too dangerous. But a rather large-scale study would be required to prove this theory definitively. Such a study is overdue.

The regulatory battles between Uber and the taxi cartels of various cities are understandably seen as pitting an entrenched, heavily regulated industry's interests against the interests of a disruptive, less heavily regulated upstart. Lots of observers adopt that frame and choose sides accordingly. Less noticed is the way fights over the future of the taxi industry in various cities directly affect the ability of women to break into a profession that has long been dominated by men. In Las Vegas, where Uber is banned (and I've yet to be picked up by a female taxi driver), city officials have adopted a policy that plausibly has a wildly disparate impact on the economic opportunities of women, however unintentionally.

If Las Vegas is like L.A., the free market would, after all these years, be helping to address a huge gender disparity. Uber may even be cognizant that by recruiting women their drivers are statistically likely to have fewer accidents (though who knows if the statistics would apply in this subgroup). But regulatory barriers halted progress. I wonder if this aspect of transportation policy will affect Uber's political or legal fortunes as the company tries to expand everywhere, and is sometimes thwarted by a male-dominated industry and male-dominated legislatures. Without realizing it, they're entrenching a status quo that disadvantages women, but unless I've missed a feminist backlash, no one has yet noticed it.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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