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Uber Safety: Ask The Women Behind The Wheel

Caitlin Plummer |
April 13, 2015 | 2:14 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

UN Women pulled out of its partnership with Uber less than two weeks after it was announced. (Times of India/Twitter)
UN Women pulled out of its partnership with Uber less than two weeks after it was announced. (Times of India/Twitter)
Charity Kountz is a 35-year-old mother living in Dallas, Texas with her fiancée and their three children. She is the owner of a marketing business, a real estate agent and a published author. In October 2014, she also became an Uber driver.

Kountz joined Uber after her car was repossessed last year to supplement the income from her marketing business. “Uber has given me the ability to get another car,” she said. “It’s given me a consistent flow of cash to help offset other things. And it’s given us some fun extra money to spend on things like going to the movies with my kids.”

Kountz is one of approximately 22,000 women driving Ubers in the United States. In December 2014, only 14 percent of Uber’s 160,000 drivers across the nation were female. But in March, Uber pledged to change that statistic.

During the Commission on the Status of Women conference held in New York at the UN headquarters, UN Women announced it would be partnering with Uber to create over 1 million jobs for women globally over the next five years. Uber sent out an email to its users a day later stating the two organizations would “work together around the world toward a shared vision of equality and women’s empowerment.”

But the collaboration was short-lived. After trade unions and women’s rights organizations raised concerns over the app's failure to protect its female users, UN Women cancelled the deal within two weeks of its announcement. The executive director of the organization, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, made a statement backing out of the partnership on March 20.

The criticisms ranged from Uber’s questionable privacy practices to its mismanagement of rape cases. The most prominent case occurred in New Delhi, India last December, after which the city banned Uber and similar ride-sharing apps for failing to conduct adequate background checks. Another passenger had accused the driver of sexual assault in 2011, but police dropped charges after investigators noticed discrepancies in the victim’s story. Uber has since resumed services in New Delhi with the addition of an “in-app emergency button” that is yet to be implemented in the United States, even though these incidents are not just happening overseas.

“As unions and NGOs we find it astonishing that UN Women is linking to this organization, based on a promise of a million jobs that we know are likely to be insecure, ill paid, and potentially unsafe,” said Brigitta Paas, the vice-president of the International Transport Workers Federation, one of the groups that protested the collaboration.

But Kountz disagrees with Paas’ assessment of the Uber job. “I kind of see their point to some degree, in regard to what they’re saying about precarious informal jobs," she said. "However, I think that they’re looking at it the wrong way. I don’t treat Uber as my sole source of income. It’s one additional channel. I’m a real estate agent. I’m a published author. I do Uber when I feel like it, on my terms, and it brings me income when I need it.”

Penny Wurst, a 42-year-old single mother living in Palm Springs, Calif., uses Uber similarly, only driving one or two nights per week in five-hour stints. She holds a full-time position in billing operations and uses the extra income from driving to supplement her salary. “I told my son, 'I had to get this job with Uber so I could pay for your Legos,'" she said.  “And he’s more than happy. He’s like, ‘Mom you need to go out and drive a little bit because I want to get this Lego Death Star.'"

But Uber is a full-time job for Long Beach, Calif. resident Heather Cunningham, who drives at least 40 hours every week. Cunningham began driving for Uber six months ago, ending a two-and-a-half year stretch of unemployment after sustaining an injury as an ambulance EMT in May 2012. She is planning on going back to school soon to become a nurse.

Many of her riders find her gender a novelty in the profession. “A lot of them say, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never had a female. You’re my first female. I’ve taken many rides,’ and then usually into the conversation, I get ‘Aren’t you scared? Don’t you worry? Are you afraid?’ and I’m not, really," said Cunningham.

Though she has had one uncomfortable experience with a drunk rider who hit on her from the passenger seat, she said she has never felt unsafe while on the job. “I’m big. I am 6 feet, you know, about 300 pounds. I am a big person. Played sports my whole life and I played football," she said. "And I do have mace in my car. There’s things where I make sure I’m OK if something were to happen.”

Kountz, on the other hand, has completed over 400 trips in her six months as an Uber driver without any problems. “I’ve never had an issue with anyone even remotely coming close to being inappropriate with me, let alone violent or anything along those lines,” she said. “I think it’s a little unfair to women to basically say that we’re too weak to handle it – that we can’t protect ourselves, that men are going to take advantage.”

Wurst agrees. “I think we need something like this where women are shown that they can do pretty much anything a man can do and not have to worry about being assaulted or held at gunpoint or having her car carjacked," she said. "I mean, the same thing can happen to a man."

Wurst also believes that certain aspects of Uber even make it safer for women to drive than a taxi. “The other person who you’re picking up has to have a smartphone, they have to have an account, they have to give their personal information, they have to put a credit card down so they're easily trackable if anything does happen," she said. "That gives me a little bit more of a safe feeling.”

Besides the lack of anonymity, payment is taken care of through the app, meaning drivers don’t carry large amounts of cash that could be stolen. Even more, most drunk passengers resorting to an Uber would probably be too incapacitated to be a real threat.

“I’ve had drunk people in my car – I mean and I’m talking drunk people in my car – and the more drunk they are, the easier they are to handle usually because, you know, they’re more compliant,” Kountz said.

Of course, the system is not perfect in preparing drivers for issues that may arise. Cunningham believes that the app should provide more guidance to its drivers in basic safety measures and protocol if they do come across difficult situations. "I think that Uber should implement things in training to tell women what to do - or even guys for that matter - if something were to happen," she said. "That we don’t have to take every person. If we feel sketchy, we feel something’s wrong, we can deny the call and we won’t get in trouble. Things like that I’ve learned from experience with Uber.”

Though driving may not be for every woman, it should be considered a viable and safe option for those who may benefit from the extra income and flexible schedule. Perhaps UN Women's short-lived collaboration with Uber wasn't actually the awful idea critics made it out to be. Maybe it could have given more women like Charity, Penny and Heather the freedom to earn a living on their own terms.

“I know that it’s worked for me for the last six months; whether it’ll continue working for me in the long term, I can’t really say,” Kountz said. “I think if you go into it with an open mind, you go into it to help people, and you make sure to keep yourself safe, there’s no reason not to.”

Reach Staff Reporter Caitlin Plummer here. Follow her on Twitter here



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