Business

In The Driver’s Seat: Ride-Service Companies Attracting More Women

By Tricia Romano
The Seattle Times.

SEATTLE

Mary Conolly became a Lyft driver before she was a Lyft passenger. A former television producer who had decided to switch careers, Conolly, 54, came across a Groupon in May for the ride-sharing car service. But when she started looking into the app, she realized she’d rather be behind the wheel than in the passenger seat.

She was studying to get her real-estate license, and thought she could make money during the downtime. Instead, she said, it was “ride after ride. I was stunned how much work it was, in a good way. There was no time to study.”

And that’s how Conolly became one of the growing number of female drivers for peer-to-peer ride services like Uber and Lyft. As the companies grow (Lyft and UberX, the branch that allows people to drive their own cars, began operations in 2013 here) so do the number of women drivers, say representatives for both.

Katie Dally, a spokeswoman for Lyft, estimated that one-third of its drivers nationwide are women. On its driver application page, Lyft pairs a photo of a woman holding a set of keys with its sales pitch: “Make $35/hour choosing your own hours.”

As UberX has grown, said Brooke Steger, the general manager of Uber in Seattle, “more and more women are applying. They are quite good drivers.” She said the company also targets women at the local level in its online advertising and at job fairs.

By contrast, the taxicab industry is almost exclusively male. In New York City, according to The New York Times, only 1 percent of the city’s cabdrivers are women.

In Seattle, seeing a female cabdriver is akin to a unicorn sighting. King County officials said they didn’t track gender data of its drivers, but Tina Webb, the superintendent of drivers for Yellow Cab, the largest taxi company in Seattle, said nine out of about 4,000 drivers were female.

“They are starting to pop up,” said Webb, who has driven cabs for 26 years. “I just trained a new girl last week. I was like, ‘Yay, another girl!'”

There are several reasons women are choosing Lyft or Uber over cabs. Until recently, joining Lyft and Uber was nearly as simple as pressing a button.

Drivers for the ride services had to pass background and driving checks for the companies, but didn’t have to pay for the cab license (upward of $200), for instance.

Next month new regulations go into effect, requiring drivers for ride services and cabdrivers to meet many of the same licensing and insurance requirements.

But the biggest obstacle to becoming a cabdriver is the industry’s male-dominated culture. One Lyft and Uber driver, Holly Irons, 23, said that she had applied for a job as a cabdriver but was turned down.

“They said they didn’t need me. They were doing a huge hiring spree. I didn’t push. My thought was that it was possibly because I was female, or maybe there was something on my record.” But, she said, her record for Uber and Lyft was “super clear. It shouldn’t have been an issue.

“There’s still a stigma. I had one taxi driver scoff and laugh, ‘Women drivers, no survivors,'” she said. “It offended me as a customer.”

But driving for ride-service companies offers two things that cabs can’t: total scheduling freedom and safety, whether that safety is perceived or real.

For a woman like Selamawit Adafre, who came to Seattle from Ethiopia after her husband, who is from Seattle, was transferred for a job, Uber provided a way for her to make extra money. While she was a business owner in her native country, running a wine-distribution company, and has a degree in business management, here she found herself with time on her hands and no way to utilize her degree, which is unrecognized in the U.S.

“I wanted to do something, I want to work, you know?” she said. “I am not a person who sits in the house.”

Sabrina Sloffer, a 32 year-old mother of two, needed flexibility. She has an autistic child who has several appointments each day, and she home-schools both of her children. A cab company’s 12-hour shifts wouldn’t have worked.

Instead, she works two or three days a week, usually driving on Friday late afternoons and Saturdays during sporting events; she averages about $22 an hour.

Why, in 2014, are there so few women cabdrivers?

Studies show women are consistently safer drivers than men, with fewer tickets and accidents.

“Fear,” Adafre said. “First, I said, I’m not going to drive at night, especially if they are drunk. (Then) I said, what the heck. Let’s see. If I feel like something is gonna happen to me, I will stop.”

Sloffer, for instance, stops driving at 8:30 p.m. “I have yet to drive peak hours from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. The biggest thing that concerns me is intoxicated people not being the most polite. I know that I would make more money if I did it during those times,” she said.

But, she said, she and her husband “decided I would come home when it got dark. It alleviated those fears.”

She takes extra precautions anyway. “My mom bought me pepper spray. So far, it’s been fine.”

It’s not always fine, though. Irons, the driver for Lyft and Uber, prefers driving late at night because it’s the most profitable time, but she recently had a run-in with a drunken passenger who tried to take his pants off. Afraid to cut the ride short for fear of being deactivated by Uber, she delivered him to his destination.

She was told by Uber the next day she wouldn’t have faced repercussions for ending the ride, and the company is looking into the situation.

Still, the very way Lyft and Uber are structured generally creates a built-in safety net for women.

With both companies, an app requires a person’s credit-card information, and the account is either linked to an email address or a social-media profile like Facebook.

“I never really considered driving a cab because I thought it would be too dangerous picking up random strangers,” Conolly said. With Uber and Lyft, “you really have to be a dumb criminal to give all that information and go rob somebody.”

Webb, with Yellow Cab, tells new female cabdrivers, “Be careful. Just because you are a woman, people will try more stuff.” She said the cameras required by the city in the cabs help, but “it’s still a really dangerous job.”

While the women interviewed said they were a novelty to many customers, for the most part their gender was a nonissue.

It’s even an advantage. When she picks up the “vomiters” on Capitol Hill on the weekends, Conolly resorts to her “mom voice” to get younger guys to behave.

“Maybe they would be acting up in the car but because I’m an older female, they watch it. It’s a funny dynamic,” she said.

Other times, passengers, especially female passengers, will bond with her in a way they might not with male drivers. Conolly recalls the night she picked up a young girl who was riding between two suburban Seattle towns during rush-hour traffic.

Over the course of the 40-minute trip, the girl told her “her whole life story and how she got in trouble,” Conolly said. “By the time I dropped her off, I felt like a therapist giving her life advice, and she was in tears and thanking me so much for the advice.”

“It’s entertaining,” she said of her brief time as a driver.

More entertaining than studying for a real-estate-license exam.

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