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The Dark Realities Women Face Driving for Uber and Lyft

(Bloomberg) -- Late one night in June, Jody Pagliocco was driving down a long, wooded road in southern Maine.  She was working for Uber, and her passenger, a man, was in the front seat. That was unusual —but she hadn’t felt comfortable telling him to get in the back when he opened the front door. She had picked him up from a bar in town, and he was drunk. The road was dark and there was nobody around. Pagliocco was getting uncomfortable.

“He made a joke about not being a serial killer,” Pagliocco said. “Then he started talking about sexual stuff,” and all she could think about was: “What if he tries to grab or touch me?”

Pagliocco drove to the front gates of his house and told the passenger to get out of the car. She was relieved he left, though the incident left her scared and shaken, causing her to stop driving for several days. Soon after she got back on the road, she drove another passenger who she said tried to grab her and kiss her. Pagliocco has only been driving for about half a year, yet of the thousand or so rides that she’s driven for Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc., she says a few hundred of those have led to inappropriate advances or uncomfortable encounters.

Experiencing assault and harassment on the job is terrible. And on top of that, it affects her paycheck. After many of those instances, Pagliocco has taken a day, or several days off from driving. Though she prefers to drive late at night when she makes the most money taking people home from bars and events, Pagliocco says after these “unnerving” incidents, she will drive at earlier times of the day, when she makes far less money.

Driving is a full-time job for Pagliocco.  She signed onto the services after a cross-country move and mostly drives for Uber. Her daughter had an accident that left her paralyzed, and Pagliocco wanted to be nearer to where she was receiving medical treatment, so she moved from Seattle to Maine. She was having trouble finding full-time work, and driving seemed like a job that allowed her to make her own schedule so she could also care for her daughter.

The Dark Realities Women Face Driving for Uber and Lyft

Uber and Lyft have been hailed as economic saviors, offering flexible work for mothers juggling childcare responsibilities. While the quick pay and autonomous work have drawn people in, many women like Pagliocco who drive for Uber and Lyft say they frequently encounter harassment or assault.

In a private Facebook group for female drivers that’s grown to more than 10,000 members since it was started in 2016, women frequently ask questions, give advice, and share driving stories. Many of the posts include experiences of sexual harassment. In one post, a woman wrote that a passenger grabbed the steering wheel and sexually assaulted her. She called 911 and the passenger was jailed. Another woman wrote that a male passenger slapped and hit her, hurting her back and shoulder. She said she called the police. Another shared a screen shot of a report she made within the Uber app, where she wrote that a rider forcibly kissed her.

Uber and Lyft allow drivers to report incidents in the app or through a 24/7 call line. They’ve also recently added new safety features to the platforms, including the ability to easily call 911 in the app. Uber recently added a feature that allows drivers to share trips with friends and family, a capability that is offered to riders on both platforms.

 “Any situation reported to us is something that we take extremely seriously,” said Stephanie Bryson, Uber’s Head of Safety and Consumer Protection Policy. “Uber should be a place where both our riders and our drivers feel comfortable.”

“The safety of the Lyft community is our top priority,” Lyft wrote in a statement. “We do not tolerate harassment or violence on our platform, and such behavior can and does lead to a permanent ban from our service.”

But Harry Campbell, who runs the Rideshare Guy, a popular blog among drivers, says the companies can do more. “Both Uber and Lyft have been extremely innovative when it comes to transforming the rideshare and mobility industry, but there have been areas like safety where they have been a lot more reactive,” he said. “They should put their brainpower and innovation towards safety.”

Zuwena, a 36-year-old in Portland, Ore., started the Facebook group for women drivers after a frightening experience driving for Lyft.  She had picked up a drunk man from a bar. He sat in the front seat. As she was driving, he grabbed her arm several times. “My hands were shaking but I told him to get out and that I was grabbing my mace, and I told him to get on the side of the road,” said Zuwena. “My whole night was pretty much done after that.”  She called the police and Lyft, who told her that they would deactivate the rider’s account. Zuwena’s last name, and those of a few other women drivers, are being withheld because of concerns over retaliation. 

Emily, who is 23 and in school to become a paramedic, started driving for Uber and Lyft in Phoenix, Arizona a year ago, after her mother started working on the platforms. “I feel safer than most women you’d ask,” Emily said. “I’m comfortable with drunk people. They’ll get touchy and make weird comments.” But she’s also had experiences that disturbed her, like the drunk man who masturbated in her car.

Hannah Minter, a driver in Savannah, Georgia, said that the inappropriate encounters she’s had with passengers are what’s keeping her from driving full-time for Uber and Lyft. She is a 24-year-old single mother of two kids. She didn’t finish college, and after her divorce, she began driving for ride-share platforms to supplement her income designing T-shirts and mugs that she sells on Etsy. Minter drives six to ten hours a week at night, when her kids are in bed. She said she frequently encounters passengers who make sexual comments or try to touch her inappropriately.

“Every single time, every day that I drive, every night that I drive, there is at least one questionable experience,” Minter said.

Paul Oyer, a labor economist at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, co-authored a study published earlier this year that found men earn about 7 percent more than women per hour on average on the Uber platform. Oyer worked with Uber and other academics to study a sample of more than one million drivers in the U.S. between January 2015 and March 2017. Oyer found several factors putting women at a disadvantage. They included differences in driving speed, where and when they drove, and how long male and female drivers were staying on the platform.

Oyer found that on average, men were driving longer hours per week and were less likely to quit. That meant they were accumulating more experience, like learning when and where to drive and how to strategically cancel and accept trips, contributing to higher earnings on the platform.

Despite the flexibility advantage, “there’s some other things going on in this platform that make it more attractive for men than for women,” Oyer said. “You could imagine that they [women] don’t feel it’s safe.”

Several women said that after rebuffing a passenger’s advances, they worried about the rider retaliating by giving them a bad rating or erroneously reporting them for a serious infraction like drunk driving. That can lead to a suspension from driving for multiple days, as the platform conducts an investigation.

“For female drivers dealing with advances and people hitting on them, they should be able to say they want to stop the ride, but it’s like they have to let them down gently,” Campbell said. “Drivers don't receive training on how to handle these things.”

Former Uber Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick was ousted last year after female employees made allegations that the company did not respond appropriately to sexual harassment. Since then, CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has tried to overhaul the culture and make safety a greater priority of the company, said Bryson, the company’s head of safety.

We’ve really taken the need to improve to heart,” she said. Uber is working on a transparency report that will show data on reports of sexual assault. The company also eliminated forced arbitration agreements for employees, riders and drivers who make sexual assault or harassment claims against the company. That means instead of resolving any legal claims in an arbitration hearing, people can take those claims to court.

When a driver files a complaint about a passenger because of a safety issue on Uber, it’s flagged to a special team with training on dealing with high-sensitivity incidents, according to Bryson. Depending on the severity, the company will open an investigation to speak with the rider and driver before making a decision on next steps. 

Lyft said On Lyft’s app, if a driver or rider rates someone 3 stars or below, they will never be matched with them again, according to a statement from the company. Lyft also said that that it’s announcing 15 new features by the end of this year, many of which focus on driver safety.

Pagliocco’s still driving, but looking for other work. “I loved the flexibility and everything, but the money just isn’t consistent enough,” in addition to dealing with the “sexual harassment stuff,” she said. “I mean, I would much rather have a full-time job.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.