A few weeks ago, the UN retracted its proposed link-up with ride-sharing firm Uber. Under the initiative announced only a few weeks earlier, Uber and the UN intended to create one million jobs for female drivers by 2020. Those female drivers would hopefully provide safer rides for female-only passengers travelling on their own. Sounds good right? It would have tackled two female-friendly issues at one time: economic empowerment of women and better safety for women passengers travelling in taxis… So why did the UN suddenly pull out?
It was in direct response to concerns raised by the International Transport Federation Union. It was left to the ITF – backed by a number of international women’s organisations – to highlight Uber’s questionable (and well documented) employment practices and safety records. The ITF’s statement said: “Women already make up a high percentage of the precarious workforce, and increasing informal, piecemeal work contributes significantly to women’s economic disempowerment and marginalisation across the globe.” Uber jobs would “not contribute to women’s economic empowerment and represents exactly the type of structural inequality within the labour market that the women’s movement has been fighting for decades.”
Either the UN didn’t do its research (inexcusable considering that most people could probably have told them as much), or it gambled that the bigger headline of the creation of one million jobs for women – and the injection of funding/collaboration from the private sector – was enough of a pay-off. But what’s more remarkable is that the UN even considered it as it raises many other wider issues beyond those flagged by the ITF. While I of course support the principle of helping to create jobs for women, as well as potential ways to tackle violence against women – both real and significant social problems – this was not the way to do it.
If Uber really wanted to make women’s lives safer, they could tighten their security checks and hiring practices. Surely if assaults are occurring within a business’ operation, legally the business should be held to account no matter how amateur their style of operation? At what point does the benefit of cheap rides obscure responsibility for safety? Oh, and they could just actively hire more women if female underemployment is their equal concern: in the US for example, only 14% of UBER drivers are female.
The real incentive was that Uber stood to make a profit from this on several fronts. It would grow its employee headcount and (female) passenger numbers and counter one of its key criticisms, which is that, as its taxi drivers are unlicensed they are a less safe way to travel than licenced taxis, as has been well documented. It would also have benefited from the huge international publicity and prestige gained from being associated with a global human-rights-friendly brand like the UN, and from the resulting glow of appearing to be a socially responsible business.
But being a profit-making entity, such behaviour is not surprising. The UN has no such excuse. As a non-profit making organisation that supposedly has gender equality as a central goal, its association with this initiative is highly questionable. Although the UN can never be wholly free from neoliberal forces and funders, it represents a further step towards the almost semi-privatisation of our human-rights orientated institutions. It is a move that continues to place the promotion of economic growth as the number one way to solve social problems. But what’s a little instrumental profit-making if ultimately the social benefits outweigh the negatives and you are working towards your goal of greater gender equality? Oh, wait, no, wrong again. Because what the project actually would have done is sustain some very dangerous messages on both sides of the gender divide – the over-generalising, gendered presumption that all men are dangerous and all women are vulnerable and need protection.
Gendered division cannot achieve gender equality
While violence against women is a definite problem which must be addressed – as feminist activists have long argued with events such as Reclaim the Night – we should not try to solve such issues by policing women’s behaviour and creating no-go zones in the name of gender equality. Gender division is not gender equality. Like women-only carriages on the tube (which has frequently been suggested on the London transport network) – restricting women’s movement is not liberation. Warning of and prosecuting perpetrators, increasing surveillance and campaigning for increased reporting as well as better handling of sexual crimes would go much further. Women-only drivers and rides would continue to suggest that once again, it is women’s responsibility to tackle gender inequality and we must change our actions. Two years ago I was travelling on an underground train in Singapore and was shocked to see a sign on the wall warning female passengers not to stand too close to male passengers wearing a short skirt in order to avoid assault. Whilst this is a more extreme example, it follows exactly the same logic of telling women to get on certain carriages, or ride in certain taxis, and that certain spaces are simply not safe for them.
Which moves us on to an even bigger problem. The initiative would also have reinforced and sustained the gender dichotomy: the idea that there are only two genders which we must all fit into. What about those who don’t pass, or don’t want to pass, the ‘bathroom test’ – who gets to decide if you fall into the ‘right’ gender category to partake in your taxi ride? Regulate that one, Uber. Thankfully this time the deal has been dropped but it was a close call and a warning to the UN to consider its strategic partnerships much more carefully.