The Option To Request Female Drivers Isn’t The Solution To Uber’s Sexual Assault Issues

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
A brief hiatus from bad Uber news ended on Monday, when CNN published a new investigation revealing that 103 Uber drivers have been accused of sexual assault or abuse over the past four years.
This is far from the first time Uber has faced issues over its drivers assaulting customers: Last year, an executive was ousted after obtaining the medical records of a woman raped by her Uber driver in India. In 2016, a BuzzFeed investigation of Uber's customer service system found hundreds of tickets tagged as "assault" or "rape". Uber is also facing an on-going class action lawsuit in California which alleges the company hasn't done enough to screen its drivers and ensure the safety of female customers.
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The CNN investigation, which involved combing through court records and police reports, is one of the largest in scope. In a statement, an Uber spokesperson acknowledged the report and referenced recent safety changes.
"These stories are horrific and our hearts go out to the victims. We worked with CNN to understand their findings and determined that Uber did 2.4 billion trips in the U.S. in that same period. But even one incident on our platform is too many which is why safety is Uber’s top priority for 2018 and beyond," said Uber in the statement.
On Twitter, many users presented their own solution for in-car safety: Offer a way to request a female driver when scheduling a ride.
Even a former Uber driver weighed in, recounting her own experience listening to female customers who expressed relief when they entered her car.
The ability to choose a female Uber driver might sound like a good idea when it comes to helping female riders feel safer — and, as noted previously, be a feature riders prefer — but it is not the answer to Uber's problems for a number of reasons. For starters, it would likely be illegal.
"Title VII of the Civil Rights Act allows employers to discriminate on the basis of sex in hiring drivers only when sex is a 'bona fide occupational qualification', or BFOQ, for a job," explains Vicki Schultz, the Ford Foundation Professor of Law and Social Science at Yale Law School. "The courts have construed this exception very narrowly, correctly in the view of almost all employment discrimination law scholars."
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Title VII came into play in a key 1981 case concerning an airline's refusal to hire male flight attendants. The court determined airlines could not hire based on gender, since the BFOQ for being a good flight attendant has nothing to do with whether someone is male or female.
If Uber were to add a way for passengers to choose their driver's gender, the users would be the ones making the gendered choice. However, "customer preference is no defence, because it is precisely those preferences, or prejudices, that in many cases civil rights law was meant to overcome," Schultz says. "Here, permitting customers to choose female over male drivers out of safety concerns promotes stereotyped ideas that all or most men are potentially rapists or perpetrators of sexual assault — and that no women are."
Even if the law wasn't the issue, Kafui Attoh, an associate professor of urban studies at the CUNY School of Professional Studies, points out that introducing a way for riders to deliberately request female drivers could have negative implications for the drivers. Female Uber drivers have reported being assaulted by customers, and such a change could put them at greater risk. Basic logistics are also an issue. A gender-picking tool would mess with Uber's algorithm and probably increase wait times.
According to Attoh and his colleague Katie Wells, a post doctoral fellow at Georgetown University studying the work life of Uber drivers, the path to a more effective solution begins with data. There is currently no publicly available data for the number of sexual assaults by rideshare drivers — that's why CNN's analysis is so important. In order for researchers and policy makers to determine the full of scope of these issues, and compare them across companies, it's essential to have this information.
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Wells says the question of employment comes into play here, too. Uber has long treated drivers as independent contractors, rather than full-time employees, but this status is increasingly facing challenges in court. "If these drivers were employed it would be much easier to track what’s happening," Wells says. "It won’t solve it — people can be employees and things can still go unnoticed — but it would be easier to make decisions if we know where and when this is happening."
In the meantime, stronger background checks could help decrease the risk of sexual assault for ridesharing companies. Uber has come under fire — and faced fines — for lax background checks in the past, and announced last month that it will put money towards technology that proactively screens drivers for new criminal offences. The company's CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, has made improving safety efforts a key priority for 2018. Schultz suggests requiring drivers to video record their rides as another safety measure.
Ultimately, there is no one clear solution to lowering the number of sexual assaults. But from the numbers, it is clear that this is a problem that Uber and policy makers need to address head-on — and fast.
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