Can Uber solve its women problem?

Uber, the popular ride-hailing service, announced a plan to create 1 million jobs for women worldwide by 2020, part of a partnership with the UN. The announcement comes on the heels of several incidents that have served to paint Uber as anything but a female-friendly company. 

Mosaab Elshamy/AP/File
Anthony Khoury, head of Middle East and Africa expansions for Uber, demonstrates the mobile application at a press event to celebrate the official launch of the car-hailing service in Cairo.

Uber, the well-heeled, rapidly growing transportation startup, already has ticked off a lot of people in its five-year existence, including the taxi industry, journalists, and even its own drivers and passengers. Some of the most troubling criticism, however, has stemmed from its treatment of women – from failures to protect female passengers from harassment and assault all the way up to charges of misogyny in its corporate ranks. Any discussion of Uber’s girl problem has to start with the question: “Which one?”

Tuesday, Uber made a step to reform that image, announcing that it would team up with UN Women, a gender equality initiative, to create 1 million jobs for women worldwide over the next five years. “UN Women and Uber are launching a partnership to work together around the world toward a shared vision of equality and women’s empowerment,” Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and UN Women director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said in a joint statement on the company’s blog. “This important mission can only be accomplished when all women have direct access to safe and equitable earning opportunities."

In the United States, women make up 14 percent of Uber’s 160,000 drivers, according to the company. The UN Women partnership would focus in on the countries where the organizations overlap – UN Women operates in 48 countries, Uber in 55.  Some of those include developing countries where it is still difficult, and even potentially dangerous, for women to have jobs as drivers. Salle Yoo, Uber’s general counsel, will address the United Nations Tuesday evening flanked by Esther Wanjiru Kirigwi, the first female Uber driver in Nairobi. 

Uber-related safety mishaps, however, are not limited to women in such places. In the US, as Buzzfeed has reported, female Uber drivers in the US have faced harassment from passengers who have located them using the Uber app’s “Lost and Found” feature. The company has faced complaints of sexual assault by Uber drivers in Boston, San Francisco, and other cities; in December, an Uber driver in New Delhi was charged with kidnapping and raping a passenger, prompting a temporary ban in that city. 

Uber has made changes in response, like introducing a “panic” button in India and posting safety instructions on its app in the US. But in addition to on-the-ground safety concerns, a few misogynistic gaffes by Uber’s top executives, plus incidents painting the startup’s Silicon Valley home as an unrepentant boys’ club, have raised a lot of eyebrows about the company’s attitudes toward women.

Last year, Mr. Kalanick drew fire for calling his company “Boob-er” in a GQ profile, referencing what a boon Uber’s success has been for his sex life. In October, the company apologized for a “hot chick” promotion from one of its offices in France that paired passengers with attractive female drivers, complete with the tagline, “Who said women don’t know how to drive?”

Incidents like those, combined with continued safety problems even after an announced revamp of its policies, have helped paint Uber as a company that either doesn’t get it or doesn’t really care. In perhaps the most damning indictment of the company yet, the New Delhi rape victim has publicly accused Uber of only making “cosmetic” changes that made women no safer, and refusing to meet with her and her lawyers to discuss safety reforms. "Until women can legitimately feel safe, we cannot obtain equality,” said the woman, who has been identified only as an executive in Delhi, in a statement released on National Women’s Day. “Sadly, Uber doesn't understand this."

As part of the UN Women partnership, Uber says it will work directly with its female drivers to fit its safety measures to each country’s needs. It has also made Ms. Yoo, the company’s top female executive, the face of the initiative. But it will take a lot more to satisfy the company’s critics and earn a label as a female-friendly company.

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