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Women-only Uber set to launch in Boston. Isn't that illegal?

Chariot, a ride hailing app for only female drivers and passengers, is set to open in Boston on April 19. While some women are excited for the new app, others say it is discriminatory and will likely face legal challenges.

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    Women who have been making purchases carry shopping bags as they walk down Boylston Street, May 3, 2012 in Boston, Massachusetts.
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Chariot, a ride-hailing app for only women drivers and passengers, is set to launch in Boston later this month. 

Founder Michael Pelletz, an Uber driver himself, said he came up with the idea for Chariot after he – as a man - felt uncomfortable with a male passenger. And after talking to his wife and many female Uber passengers, Mr. Pelletz “knew he had to come up with a better way to keep people safe,” explains Chariot’s website. “Especially women passengers and drivers.” 

But Chariot's female-only hiring and service practices will likely face tough legal battles in the near future, civil rights lawyers tell the Boston Globe.

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“To limit employees to one gender, you have to have what the law calls a bona fide occupational qualification. And that’s a really strict standard,” Massachusetts employment law specialist Joseph Sulman tells the Globe. “The law’s really tough on that. For gender, it’s not enough to say, ‘we really just want to have a female here because our customers prefer that to feel safer.’” 

But Pelletz says he isn’t worried. 

“We look forward to legal challenges,” Pelletz tells TechCrunch. “We want to show there’s inequality in safety in our industry. We hope to go to the US Supreme Court to say that if there’s safety involved, there’s nothing wrong with providing a service for women.” 

Chariot says its safety measures are unprecedented for ride-hailing apps. All drivers will undergo background checks through the notoriously strict Safer Places program and all drivers must pass Massachusetts’s Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) check, the same in-depth check used at daycare centers and preschools. 

And when a passenger requests a Chariot, she will be sent a specific code word. Her driver will have the same specific code word, so each passenger can ensure she is getting in the car with the right driver. Chariot also prides itself on never implementing surge pricing and donating two percent of all proceeds to female-focused charities. 

“It took only ten minutes for Michael to come up with an entire business plan for a brand new ride share company; driven by women, for women and children passengers only,” explains Chariot’s website. “This was the untapped market that Uber and Lyft neglected. He replayed all the conversations of unsafe rides that women passengers had with taxi, Uber and Lyft drivers throughout the last year.”

Uber's poor global image for women's safety is no secret. In October, two women, including one from Boston, sued Uber for neglect and fraud after they were allegedly sexually assaulted by their Uber drivers and Uber recently settled another class action lawsuit for $25 million for claiming to be the "safest ride on the road" with "the gold standard" of drivers' background checks. And across the world in India, an Uber driver was found guilty of kidnapping and raping a female passenger. 

And on the driver side of business, Uber also acknowledges that they have a women problem.

In May 2015, Uber announced an ambitious goal to recruit female drivers. Through a partnership with UN Women, Uber said the ride-hailing company would hire one million more female drivers by 2020. But one week after the company’s press release, UN Women executive director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka broke the partnership with Uber, amid backlash from union groups who said the promised jobs were unsafe and ill paid.   

Drivers often complain about the lack of driver support from Uber, evident in their employee turnover rate. Several female drivers told BuzzFeed that they had inappropriate, frightening experiences with male passengers, and that Uber was slow to respond and only ended up offering a vague apology and $10 driver credit.

“When fed-up drivers quit, new drivers are willing to take their place – twice as many new drivers every six months,” says Forbes.

Only 14 percent of Uber’s 162,000 active drivers are women.

Pelletz says children under the age of 13 and transgender women are also welcome to use Chariot. 

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